Community Adjourned: Assessing Community Advisory Panels

Smokestack (Wikimedia)

An industrial chimney. Communities often oppose proposed chemical facilities in their area.

Alongside diminished public support the chemical industry faces targeted opposition from residents of communities adjacent to its facilities and from potential host communities for proposed facilities. These grassroots campaigns, which comprise the environmental justice and anti-toxics movements, focus on a combination of safety, health, and social issues, including racism in industrial siting practices, and can demand anything from environmental cleanup to relocation of whole communities. While Responsible Care endeavors to shift negative public perceptions of the chemical industry in general, CAPs attempt to forestall grassroots opposition to specific facilities by engaging stakeholders at the community level.

CAPs are also potentially important in the regulatory context. Environmental regulations do not explicitly require structured dialogues—or even good relations—between chemical facilities and the communities in which they operate. However, regulatory agencies themselves are required to invite public comment before issuing permits, and organized opposition to a facility may make regulators more reluctant to grant a permit or more likely to scrutinize a facility’s performance. To the extent that CAPs build community trust and support for a facility, they help establish an informal “license to operate” from residents that regulators and chemical companies alike acknowledge to be important.

Further, CAPs are consistent with existing regulatory approaches to public or community involvement. The panels closely resemble (and, some have suggested, are modeled on) government-sponsored citizen advisory committees or boards, mechanisms long used by regulatory agencies to facilitate public input into environmental decision making. CAPs also mirror agencies’ own approaches to addressing intractable conflicts around industrial facilities: the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, for example, has instituted a community-industry panel program that sponsors dialogues in communities where residents and chemical facilities are in contention.

Creating a Framework for Assessing CAPs

Assessing the successes and limitations of CAPs is difficult because no coherent framework of goals or outcomes has emerged against which CAP performance can be evaluated. The specific goals of individual CAPs are determined to a large extent by the panel members themselves as part of the process of establishing the CAP. However, as a chemical industry “best practice” that responds to political trends affecting the industry as a whole, CAPs can be assumed to share a common set of overarching purposes.

While a framework for evaluating CAPs has not yet been created, frameworks for assessing the success of closely related, government-sponsored citizen advisory committees (CACs) have been proposed. In these frameworks a few common elements appear repeatedly. Successful CACs should educate citizens on the policy issues under discussion, inform decision makers about public values, improve the quality of policy decisions, and build relationships between citizens and policy makers. The last three items are especially important to the credibility of CACs as deliberative bodies. Agencies have been criticized for using a “decide-announce-defend” model in which the public is not consulted until after important decisions have already been made; effective CACs answer these criticisms by not only inviting citizen input but also using it to arrive at better decisions.