Citizen Groups and Scientific Decisionmaking

Does Public Participation Influence Environmental Outcomes?

This paper addresses whether citizen groups have an impact on agency decision-making at hazard waste sites nationwide. Effects of two forms of public participation are examined: Community Advisory Groups (CAGs) and Technical Assistance Grants (TAGs). Specifically, the paper analyzes whether outcomes are different at Superfund sites where these groups are active. Congress requires that the EPA develop explicit "Community Involvement Plans" for each site, involving fostering CAGs and advertising that TAGs are available (up to $50,000) to local groups, with restrictions such as that TAGs cannot be used to pursue legal action against the EPA.

Analysis tested the relative influence of two "competing models" of agency behavior: responsiveness and professional norms. Independent variables rank hazardous waste remedies in terms of health protectiveness. The author concludes that local community groups do make a difference and that the EPA is more likely to select protective remedies at sites with active local groups. The EPA is also more likely to select protective remedies at sites where responsible parties have been identified. Political influences, such as an elected official from the sites' district on a committee that influences Superfund activities, do not seem to be a consistent factor in influencing agency decision-making. Other factors that affect agency responsiveness are the presence of groundwater contamination; multiple chemical contamination; age of Superfund site, with older sites receiving more remedies; and demographics, such as fewer African-American residents and more homeowners in the area. Income and education were not predictive of agency responsiveness, but areas with lower income averages and more African Americans were more likely to have active TAGs and CAGs, therefore presumably gaining influence through these groups and possibly offsetting some of the disproportionate burden of environmental harms that minority communities shoulder.

The author concludes that future research should explore mobilization "across a variety of environmental issues to determine if certain programs are more effective in facilitating citizen participation."