Policy & Politics

Community Adjourned: Assessing Community Advisory Panels

Community advisory panels link chemical facilities and neighboring communities. How well do they work?

By Gwen Ottinger | July 12, 2009

Community advisory panels, or CAPs, are a central feature of the U.S. chemical industry’s public outreach efforts. CAPs have fostered dialogue between chemical facilities and neighboring communities nationwide. However, they are also frequently criticized as merely public-relations vehicles for the chemical industry. Gwen Ottinger reviews the contexts in which CAPs operate and proposes frameworks for assessing their success.

Community adjourned

Smokestack

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

Following major accidents at a number of chemical facilities in the 1980s that severely undermined public confidence in the global chemical industry, the industry’s trade associations established the Responsible Care initiative. Responsible Care aims to rebuild public confidence in the industry by improving environmental performance and creating a forum for open communication with stakeholders. In the United States community advisory panels have emerged as the dominant form of Responsible Care—motivating a new interest in public outreach. During regularly scheduled meetings CAPs bring together representatives from chemical facilities with residents of the communities in which those facilities are located. While CAPs have been lauded for fostering community-industry dialogue, they have also been criticized by those who suspect them of being little more than public-relations vehicles for the industry.

As implemented by the American Chemistry Council (ACC, formerly the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association) in the United States, Responsible Care asks chemical facilities to improve health, safety, and environmental performance beyond what is required by law and to communicate openly with neighbors and other members of the public about the facilities’ performance. Adherence to the detailed guidelines of Responsible Care is an obligation of membership in the ACC. All ACC member companies are thus expected to participate in public dialogues. Although companies need not necessarily establish CAPs to fulfill this requirement, such panels are a prevalent form of public dialogue in the industry. In 2004 the ACC reported that member companies had established roughly 300 CAPs.

Political and Regulatory Contexts

The crisis of public confidence in the chemical industry was largely catalyzed by the 1984 Bhopal, India, tragedy when a 40-ton methyl isocyanate release from a Union Carbide subsidiary killed thousands of Indian villagers. The event led to questions about the safety of chemical plant operations worldwide and in the United States triggered community right-to-know legislation and new forms of emergency planning.

Negative public perceptions of the U.S. chemical industry have also been fueled by the growing anti-toxics and environmental justice movements, which emerged in the early 1980s. They allege that even the normal operations of industrial facilities threaten the environment and the health of nearby communities. Anti-toxics and environmental justice activists have been effective in introducing concerns about everyday health hazards into the public discourse about the chemical industry, dubbing the Mississippi River Industrial Corridor, with its high concentration of chemical and petrochemical facilities, “Cancer Alley.”

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.

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.

A Framework for Assessment: CAP Goals

1. Building trusting relationships between chemical facilities and community members
2. Educating community members about plant operations and performance
3. Informing facilities about community concerns
4. Facilitating environmental improvements at chemical plants