May 11, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Good data isn’t just important to researchers; it’s also essential for people who want to participate in the governmental processes that affect our environment. The US government makes a lot of environmental data available to the public and provides many opportunities for public participation, but both the information and the engagement opportunities need to improve if we’re going to effectively address the many threats to our health, from air pollution to climate change. The nonprofit OMB Watch has just released an action plan that contains many specific recommendations for doing exactly that: An Agenda to Strengthen Our Right to Know: Empowering Citizens with Environmental, Health, and Safety Information.

Having participated in part of the process that resulted in this document, I can say that it’s an impressive distillation of input from a diverse group of environmental information users. I attended the conference that OMB Watch organized to bring together representatives of different groups that use environmental information – local “fenceline” groups dealing with pollution in their communities, groups working to preserve biodiversity in a particular region, environmental organizations, unions, healthcare professionals, journalists, academics, and others. They presented us with a draft set of recommendations (the result of many conversations with an initial smaller group of participants) and asked for feedback. It was instructive to hear from other participants who used a wide range of environmental information – from data on chemicals released in their areas to documents related to mining leases and permits – and had different views on what it means for environmental information to be easily accessible.

We didn’t all agree on every recommendation, but we did agree on the overall goals. Here’s a summary of the key principles and priority themes:

Key Principles
Throughout the recommendations, key principles on access to information and community engagement are clearly evident.

1. Presumption of openness – Foremost is the need for government agencies at all levels to operate under the presumption that government-held information should be freely available to the public in a timely manner. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) should become a mechanism of last resort.

2. Engage communities – Government decisions are improved by the involvement of the public. Agencies must identify impacted stakeholders and provide them the information and the forums needed to ensure just and healthy decisions are made.

3. Form is as important as content – The use of electronic, online technologies must be exploited fully by agencies in order to collect, analyze, and communicate information crucial to protecting environmental and public health. At the same time, agencies must identify and use all means available, including offline methods. Consumer labels, for example, are a proven and effective means of informing the public about potential risks.

4. Openness pays many dividends – The benefits of enhanced environmental right to know include a resurgent trust in the government and the systems that are designed to protect the public, as well as more efficient and effective government programs. As a result, people may become more involved in decision making because they feel that their voices will be heard and their efforts can make a difference.

Priority Themes
Three priority themes also emerge from among the numerous recommendations developed by the participants in this process.

1. Environmental justice must always be considered.
Minority and low-income communities have historically borne a far greater proportion of environmental harm than other communities, a situation that persists despite a welcome increase in discussions about this problem at high levels of government. The cause of environmental justice appears consistently throughout the following recommendations and should be regarded as a priority by all levels of government. Several recommendations address the need to improve the scope of equity-based data collection, identify sources and methods for obtaining and analyzing environmental justice data, and widely disseminate these data and their sources.

2. Health risks from chemicals need to be better tracked and communicated to the public.
This topic covers many areas, from identifying the fate and impacts of pesticides in the environment to assessing safer and more secure technologies that eliminate or reduce the risk of harm. There is a great need for more and better data on potential impacts to vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and children. Among the obstacles to gathering and disclosing such information is the overuse and abuse of trade secrets protections. Reforming what information is protected by the trade secrets privilege and how access is achieved features prominently in this report.

3. Public participation has to start with the government.
While there are many communities, organizations, and individuals across the country who are interested and concerned about environmental issues, the first steps to getting those people to engage must come from the government. Agencies have much to do to foster conditions where meaningful public participation can thrive. Greater outreach to impacted communities is sorely needed. Empowering communities with tools and information can alleviate some of the strain on regulatory agencies caused by limited resources. Actively bringing citizens into the processes of protecting the environment is a promising strategy.

The agenda also suggests several “First Steps” for immediately starting to address the priority themes:

  • Increase the collection and distribution of environmental justice data
  • Fill data gaps on the harm from chemicals, as well as address information shortfalls on safer alternatives
  • Ensure product labels disclose all ingredients and their associated risks
  • Forge the Toxics Release Inventory into a more powerful disclosure tool
  • Develop a unified facility reporting system
  • Provide for worker and public participation

The Progress on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, which Celeste and I work for, has signed on as one of the 100+ organizations endorsing this agenda’s overall goals. (It would’ve been impossible to get everyone to agree on every recommendation, so OMB Watch wisely just asked for groups to endorse the overall goals and agree that the recommendations overall would be a significant step toward accessibility, accountability, and opportunities for constructive public participation.) Support from such a diverse group of environmental information users is a testament to OMB Watch’s extensive and inclusive process. I can only imagine how much time and effort it took to turn pages upon pages of conference input into this concise and well-organized document.

The Obama Administration doesn’t have an unblemished record on transparency, but President Obama has voiced a commitment to openness and his administration might be open to implementing some of these recommendations. OMB Watch has delivered copies of the report to the White House and several agencies.

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