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Government’s Job

A response to "Beyond Backyard Environmentalism" by Charles Sabel, Archon Fung, and Bradley Karkkainen

Matt Wilson and Eric Weltman

"Beyond Backyard Environmentalism" identifies and discusses some novel and important environmental policies and programs. Unfortunately, the article could be easily read to support government abdication of its fundamental responsibilities. It is the government’s job to protect public health and the environment–it should not be the obligation of citizens to have to join "stream teams" or publicize the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) data in order to enjoy clean water and air. Although citizen activism is at the core of our organization’s mission, it is mostly successful in concert with government action, not in lieu of it.

In fact, engaged citizenship on environmental matters is the exception, not the rule, and is often made necessary when the government is not doing its job. Clean water and air should be a right enjoyed by everyone, not just those "squeaky wheels" with the time and assistance necessary to take up the battle for a safe environment.

In addition, the authors overstate the significance of information, planning, and public involvement initiatives. In many circumstances, they may not be the best policy. When they do work, they do so in tandem with other policies, not by substituting for them. In fact, the TRI data and other public information is often used as a tool to prod government action to enforce permits and regulations, not to embarrass polluters into cleaning up their acts.

Different types of environmental threats necessitate different policies, making it unwise to endorse one model as the wave of the future. For example, the authors rightly praise TURA as a model law for reducing industrial chemical use. For certain chemicals, however–where there is no safe threshold for exposure, or the toxin is persistent and builds up in the food chain–outright bans may be the safest and wisest policy. This was certainly the case for lead in gasoline, and may be equally so for perchloroethylene (perc), a dry cleaning solution, and MTBE, a gasoline additive.

In fact, the threat of the "stick" of bans, enforcement actions, and other stringent measures are necessary for the "carrot" of voluntary initiatives to work. For instance, the authors state that "leading environmentalists, landowners, public officials, and scientists contend that, on the whole, [Habitat Conservation Plans] produce more, better, and more sophisticated ecosystem management regimes" than strict application of the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, they cite no evidence to back this claim, nor do they even name any of the "leading environmentalists" who support it. More importantly, though, the threat of Endangered Species Act Section 9 should be recognized as necessary to bring developers to the table for the expedient compromises developed in Habitat Conservation Plans. It is our experience that in negotiations with companies over a cleanup plan, the power that citizens wield is the threat of demanding government action; it is this threat that brings companies to the table and ultimately helps citizens have their demands met.

Again, Sabel, Fung, and Karkkainen tend to overstate the success of their model initiatives, overlooking how they work in tandem with other policies. For instance, the authors state that the "publication of TRI data immediately disciplines polluting private actors." They cite no evidence to substantiate this, except for the anonymous claims of some "commentators." We suspect, however, that the TRI data may have had its greatest impact in embarrassing polluters in the years when it was first released, and publicity was at its height. When this year’s data was released in the spring, to our knowledge, only one newspaper article highlighting a particular polluter appeared in all of Massachusetts.

More important, TRI data is a tool to encourage more government action against polluters–not to embarrass companies into conducting voluntary cleanups. For communities living with dirty air or polluted water, citizen activism is usually made necessary by a government willing to overlook the problem as much as by the companies causing the problem. This raises three key points. First, the TRI data and other public information are not a substitute for permit restrictions on pollution limits and other requirements; they are, in many situations, tools for citizens to ensure that the government fulfills its obligation to enforce these requirements. Second, the use of these strategies is only necessary in the unfortunate circumstances when the government is not doing its job.

Third, an extraordinary commitment of resources, skills, and time is required for information and public involvement opportunities to be effective in protecting public health and the environment. Many citizens–for example, single parents, or families juggling several jobs–do not have the time to organize a campaign against a polluter, or participate in tributary protection planning. Moreover, most citizens lack the skills necessary to organize effectively against powerful corporations. In New England, the Toxics Action Center provides organizing strategies, media training, and legal tactics to residents who are fighting local environmental hazards. Yet not every state has a Toxics Action Center or a similar such organization. In addition, technical assistance is often necessary for citizens to understand the TRI data and the TURA information, and to determine what steps companies can take to clean up their acts. Yet, such assistance from the government is generally lacking; for these programs to truly fulfill their promise, grants should be made available for hiring consultants to advise grassroots groups.

The reality is that companies are more likely to have both the time and the expertise to participate in stream teams, Habitat Conservation Plans, and the like. In fact, the authors acknowledge that participation in Habitat Conservation Plans varies from site to site, often including only a permit seeker and a government official, potentially "transforming them into unprincipled backroom deals between regulators and the regulated."

Which leads to the most important point: squeaky wheels should not get all the grease. Engaged citizenship on environmental matters is the exception, not the rule. Yet, it should not be only communities with residents willing and able to publicize the TRI data–and with newspapers willing to print them–that have clean air. "Stream teams" may be effective, but it should not be the obligation of citizens to form teams for every stream, lake, and river to ensure their cleanliness. These tools are often necessary for pressuring the government to fulfill its obligations to protect our health and safety. But the use of these tools by citizens should not be obligatory for living in a clean and safe environment.

Originally published in the October/November 1999 issue of Boston Review



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