More Public Participation at EPA

The EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OSWER) is expanding public participation this month, launching a new online discussion forum on the EPA's blog and planning a "videotown hall discussion" to discuss the Superfund. In an effort "to enhance the dialogue between EPA and the public," the new online forum and the video discussion will give the public an opportunity to present their views, ask questions, and discuss solutions related to the work of OSWER. As the name implies, OSWER deals with solid waste issues and responses to emergencies like oil spills. The Superfund program, the Risk Management Program, brownfields development, and many different waste and recycling topics fall within this office's jurisdiction.

The online forum discussions are focused around a particular question, posed by EPA. Each month there will be a new question and a new discussion. This month the question is on the topic of community engagement: "How can EPA better engage and prepare local communities, especially economically disadvantaged communities, to meaningfully participate in government decisions on land cleanup, emergency response, and the management of hazardous materials and waste?" There is also a Spanish-language version of this forum.

Since the new administration arrived, EPA has adopted this internet technology for several other forums sponsored by various EPA offices. It has been a useful way to expand the dialogue with EPA beyond the traditional public notice and comment periods announced in the Federal Register. Yet both the public and the agency are still experimenting with this mode of communication. It is not clear yet how the discussions from each month will resolve, or to what extent the conversations will overlap from one month to the next.

Unlike other EPA forums of this type, the OSWER forum seems to be ongoing, not restricted to a particular time period, and there have been comments from EPA posted in response to public comments. Other forums were a very one-way "conversation," with members of the public posting ideas and questions but never getting any response from the agency. So far, this discussion forum includes the two-way communication that marks a healthy discussion. Notably, Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus, the head of OSWER, has responded to several individual commenters. Hopefully additional EPA staff will jump on to the forum, post their own comments, and most importantly, respond to the public's comments.

Other commenters so far include local and federal government officials, businesses, nonprofit groups, and private citizens. It will be worth following the discussions to see what offshoot discussions and additional forums are sparked by this effort, and what policy actions develop.

Not to be restricted to online forums, Assistant Administrator Stanislaus will hold a "Video Town Hall Discussion" on Superfund on December 16, 2009 at 1:00 ET. The first hour of the meeting will present information on several Superfund- related topics. The second hour will be an open forum for any questions relating to Superfund. The public can submit questions by email or call in during the meeting.

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