Community Adjourned: Assessing Community Advisory Panels

Smokestack (Wikimedia)

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

CAPs differ from CACs in that chemical facilities, unlike government agencies, have no formal obligation to consult with the public about their decisions. The goals developed to assess the effectiveness of CACs are nonetheless relevant to understanding the success of CAPs. Like CACs, CAPs are a form of public consultation. As such, they face parallel questions about the extent to which they take public input seriously. CAPs that only aim to educate community members about plant operations, for example, are easily dismissed as attempting merely to legitimate the industry without hearing concerns and criticisms from outside stakeholders. Four central goals against which CAP performance can be evaluated, when adapted to industry contexts, are building relationships and trust between chemical facilities and community members, educating community members about plant operations and performance, informing facilities about community concerns, and facilitating environmental improvements at plants.

The appropriateness of this framework is confirmed in part by the results of a survey of CAP participants that asked them to identify the CAP’s primary goals and its effectiveness in meeting them. Facility representatives and community members alike believed their CAPs to be very effective at building trust between the company and the community. They also placed a high priority on goals related to improving community understanding of plant operations and industry understanding of community concerns. Having community members participate in improving plants’ environmental records was rated as a less important goal, especially by facility representatives. The goal nonetheless remains an important part of an evaluative framework in light of Responsible Care’s interest in “engaging communities in improving plant operations” combined with documented cases in which input from CAP members in fact precipitated significant environmental improvements at facilities.

Whether CAPs (and CACs) can meet their goals is influenced by a number of factors, including the involvement of independent facilitators, community participation in agenda setting, commitment to CAPs by high-level facility officials, and even the availability of outside technical experts to community members. While these factors are instrumental to success, they are insufficient to guarantee that a CAP will achieve its goals. The success of CAPs is also limited in subtle but significant ways by fundamental differences in the perspectives on community and especially on environmental issues brought to the panels both by community members and by facility representatives.

For Further Reading

American Chemistry Council. Guide to Community Advisory Panels. Washington, DC: American Chemistry Council, 2001.

Chess, Caron, and Kristen Purcell. “Public Participation and the Environment: Do We Know What Works?” Environmental Science and Technology 33:16 (1999), 2,685–2,692.

Lynn, Frances M., et al. “Chemical Industry’s Community Advisory Panels: What Has Been Their Impact?” Environmental Science and Technology 34:10 (2000), 1,881–1,886.

Reisch, Marc S. “Chemical Industry Tries to Improve Its Community Relations.” Chemical and Engineering News 72 (1994), 8–17, 20–21.

Simmons, Peter, and Brian Wynne. “Responsible Care: Trust, Credibility, and Environmental Management.” In Kurt Fischer and Johan Schot, eds., Environmental Strategies for Industry: International Perspectives on Research Needs and Policy Implications. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993, 201–226.

Gwen Ottinger is a program researcher in the environmental history and policy program at CHF’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy. She holds a Ph.D. in energy and resources from the University of California, Berkeley.