by Lenny Siegel

Introduction | Community Advisory Groups | Community Assistant Offices | Technical Advisors


Brownfields projects can influence nearby communities in many ways. They can remove health hazards and visible blight, or they can simply provide window dressing under the guise of institutional controls. They can bring in new polluting industries to the sites of old ones; they can trigger gentrification that looks good but drives the old neighbors out; or they can provide new business and housing opportunities to long-time residents. They can generate traffic, or they can bring new transportation options. They can provide new jobs, or they can aggravate economic disparities.

Today, at most Brownfields sites, the people who are most affected have little influence over which of these outcomes prevail. Environmental decisions - or at least sign-off - are the responsibility of state regulators, with local health agencies playing a supporting role. Land use planning is generally a prerogative of local governments, which usually answer to an electorate much larger than the affected neighborhood. Financing may be controlled by redevelopment agencies, the private sector, or a mix of public and private entities. Given the concentration of brownfields in poor communities, the neighbors rarely have the resources to influence investment decisions.

To the affected public, the combined process of environmental cleanup and economic revitalization is at best bewildering. Agencies and companies, often with conflicting or at least disparate goals and objectives, often take actions without considering the views or interests of the people who live next door, downstream, downwind, or up-traffic. To achieve the lofty goals inherent in the Brownfields concept, it's essential to bring public stakeholders into the decision-making process early in the project development process, and to keep them involved until completion. Though many developers are suspicious of community activists, a constructive program of public involvement actually promotes more successful projects.

Unfortunately, the traditional process for involving the public in environmental decision-making has four key shortcomings:

  1. In many communities - particularly poor areas and communities of color - the cleanup process, environmental technology, and government in general are so overwhelming that people are hesitant to participate. It may seem that residents don't care; in fact, they may simply believe that no one will listen to them.

  2. Usually public comment is sought late in the decision-making process. Site neighbors have a difficult dilemma. Do they accede to plans that have in essence already been developed or approved by regulators? Or do they throw a "wrench in the works" at the last minute?

  3. At some sites, particularly where officials consider at least some community members to be "troublemakers," public meetings offer little opportunity for genuine feedback.

  4. Handled by different agencies, public health concerns are treated independent of economic and planning issues that to community members are part and parcel of the same problem.

Experience with federal facilities and a limited number of other sites suggests that public participation can be significantly enhanced by a three-part program of community advisory groups, community assistance offices, and technical advisors. Statutes and regulations should entitle communities to this type of help, but rules should be written flexibly enough so a one-size-fits-all model is not imposed onto communities that do not need or want it. It's important to understand that effective public participation programs demand, even when subsidized, a great deal of volunteer time and effort.

Community Advisory Groups

The best known examples of this model are Restoration Advisory Boards (RABs), which now serve more than 300 domestic U.S. military bases. These boards regularly bring together a broad spectrum of representatives of the affected community - environmental activists, business community, academics and other experts who live in the area, local government, etc. - to hear reports on investigations and negotiations and to offer feedback, either as individuals or as a group. Responsible parties and regulators are ex officio members, and they are expected to provide information in forms considered useful by the board.

These groups, as indicated by their middle name, are advisory. On the one hand, they lack statutory authority, on the other, the community members face no liability. In this role, there is no need to have elections or formal appointment processes, but there is a need for agencies to ensure that volunteer membership is broad-based and balanced. In many cases, decision-makers will heed advisory group advice. If not, they should at least respond directly to public recommendations.

The best way to adapt the RAB concept to generally smaller, less contaminated, or less complex brownfields sites is to encourage the formation of neighborhood-wide or city-wide Community Advisory Groups, covering multiple sources contamination. One of the reasons RABs are generally successful is that they provide an opportunity for community members to learn as they go. As the cleanup focus shifts from site to site within a large military installation, the RAB shifts its attention as well. Rather than focus on individual properties or responsible parties, Advisory Groups would oversee the full range of site cleanup in their areas. If a single site emerges as particularly controversial or complicated, the neighborhood/city Advisory Group could easily establish a subcommittee for the life of that project.

Community advisory groups could also generate "community impact statements," assessments of existing environmental conditions that developers and others can use in devising proposals for that neighborhood or community. The existing processes of environmental review tend to seek public input late in the process, after project proponents have invested substantial time and money. They invite confrontation and often unnecessarily turn project development costs into waste. Baseline community impact statement would give developers guidelines, up front, about how to propose projects that better meet the communities' needs or expectations.

Brownfields Community Advisory Groups would be even better positioned than RABs to integrate land use and economic planning with environmental considerations. At closing military bases, the closest thing to Brownfields for federal property, RABs only deal with Defense Department-led cleanup. Future use planning, conducted under the aegis of local reuse authorities or civilian federal agencies (if they receive the property), is handled by an entirely distinct bureaucracy, with its own (if any) advisory structure. The local agencies involved in Brownfields work - health departments, planning departments, redevelopment agencies, finance offices, etc. - can and should establish common advisory boards.

The creation of a common Brownfields Community Advisory Group would encourage:

  1. The creation of a single vision on behalf of the affected community.

  2. Cleanup strategies which consider future use.

  3. Future use plans that protect public health.

  4. Cooperation among local agencies that have different missions, despite the fact that they report to the same elected officials or electorate.

The formation of a Community Advisory Group should be triggered by a show of community interest, as evidenced by a petition - such as fifty people from the area - or a request from a government agency. Responsible parties could also request the formation of a board. The Advisory Group proponents would define the geographic scope, but regulators should be prepared to resolve disputes between conflicting proposals. If public interest declines, the Group could meet less frequently, go dormant, or disband. In a small number of cases there may be a debate about what constitutes the area to be covered by the Group. The rules should be flexible. The key concept is simple: people who are affected by past, current, or future environmental "releases" (including noise and traffic as well as toxic substances) in an area should be asked to participate. Furthermore, where natural resources are impacted, stakeholder groups with an interest in those resources should also be involved.

Community Assistance Office

To facilitate the formation of effective Community Advisory Groups, state regulatory agencies should establish statewide (or in large states, regional) Community Assistance Offices. These highly visible organizations would be the front door, complete with welcome mat, for residents who want to influence, or even just learn about, Brownfields and other environmental projects.

Community Assistance Offices would bear primary responsibility for notifying communities of the option of creating an Advisory Group, and they would work with other agencies to ensure broad, representative local participation. They would help find meeting places, and they would provide support services - publicity, public address and presentation equipment, facilitation if requested, recording, etc. The Community Assistance Offices would work to ensure that members of the community have access to the documents - state policy as well as site-specific - that they need. The Offices could also support other information dissemination activities, such as a statewide site registry.

The Community Assistance Office could also help organize area-specific or regional training Workshops, not only for members of the Advisory Groups, but for members of state agencies and representatives of responsible parties who must work with them.

Perhaps most important, the Community Assistance Office staff would help Community Advisory Groups assess their requirements for independent technical assistance. They would help write requests for bids or proposals from consultants, and they would handle procurement on behalf of the Groups.

Technical Advisors

Experience shows that community advisory boards work best when they have access to technical experts independent of both the regulators and responsible parties, and conversely, that technical assistance is most effective when attached to some type of advisory group. Usually, the presence of independent technical experts improves communications between the public and decision-makers at a site.

Community Advisory Groups, working with Community Assistance Offices, should have the option of "hiring" Technical Advisors. Like consultants retained under U.S. EPA's Technical Assistance Grant program, the Technical Advisor for each area would review documents, highlight impending decisions, and help Advisory Group members develop positions both on studies and proposed decisions and workplans. The Technical Advisor, in consultation with the Group, could bring in specialists to address issues beyond his/her area of expertise. The Technical Advisor would not have the mission nor the resources to duplicate the efforts of regulator or responsible party technical experts.

In establishing such a program, states should develop contracting procedures that A) allow the members of the Advisory Group to bring in advisers that they trust; B) guarantee against waste, fraud, and abuse; and C) don't divert the Group's volunteer resources to the administration of technical assistance contracting.

The actual contracting with Technical Advisors could be done by the Community Assistance Offices, based upon criteria and recommendations from representatives of the Community Advisory Groups.

Actual contract amounts would be based upon a showing of need, as evidenced by technical questions raised by the Advisory Group. Each Advisory Group would apply for funds within a fixed statewide budget, and funds available at a site would be linked to the anticipated long-term site mitigation cost in an area.

There's no question that empowering communities makes it more likely that Brownfields cleanup and development will protect their health and serve their long-term economic interests, but there is no guarantee. In some situations, public decision-makers and investors will listen willingly, but in many cases they will find public demands too expensive or simply contrary to their site-specific objectives. When this happens, community groups get frustrated and angry, but there is an avenue for appeal.

Successful RABs and other community groups know what to do when official decision-makers don't listen. They organize. They base their goals upon what they've learned from the public involvement process. They use the contacts, information, and credibility they've gained, and they seek broader support. They might canvas door-to-door, seek a newspaper editorial, stage a protest in front of TV cameras, or meet with elected officials. They might even threaten civil rights litigation. In short, they resort to the strategies that community groups use in the absence of advisory groups and formal public participation.

Appealing to the body politic does not represent the breakdown of the advisory group system. It's democracy in action. If dissatisfied community activists can't mobilize support from the broader community, then their views will not prevail.

Surprisingly to many people, including many military base commanders, empowering the public under this model often reduces conflict. People appreciate it when their voices are heard. When given responsibility, most people exercise it. For example, officials at a Navy base recently reported, "The stakeholders provide sound technical advice regarding proposed activities and common sense ideas to save the government time and money, as was demonstrated by their suggestion to change technologies at a site in 1997. They suggested using aerobic composting in lieu of the soil washing system utilized on ordnance compounds."

Some people fear that hungry community groups will drain the public treasury with their demands for technical assistance grants, but it takes a lot of volunteer time and effort to utilize a technical consultant. In Palo Alto, California, a neighborhood association organized an informal community advisory group to manage an EPA technical assistance grant for a site in the Stanford Research Park. The neighbors successfully promoted consensus strategies for cleanup. When the project was done they returned unused grant funds to EPA, which sent them back to a surprised responsible party.

It's essential that public participation not be seen just as a way for the community to "beat up on" polluters. That sometimes happens, and often it's justified. However, if done right - that is, if the community is genuinely engaged early and continuously - public participation more often than not brings better results for both the public and the responsible parties. As such, it can help modify the traditional adversarial relationship between regulators and responsible parties into one of partnership. The benefits of full public participation, when done properly, easily outweigh the costs.