Advocates Meet to Invigorate Environmental Right-to-Know Policies

Nearly 100 public interest advocates from around the country recently convened in Washington, DC, to build an agenda for improving the public's right to know about environmental and public health threats. Advocates for public health, safety, and the environment met to develop federal policy proposals that would enhance government engagement with communities and improve access to information crucial to protecting the public. The emerging agenda seeks to capitalize on recent openness initiatives by the federal government and the Obama administration's efforts to improve government transparency, participation, and collaboration.

The conference, hosted by four foundations and organized by OMB Watch, brought together representatives from labor, environmental, public health, and environmental justice organizations, as well as academia, the media, and open government groups. Part of a nearly year-long project dubbed the Environmental Information Initiative, the event allowed participants to collaborate on defining what information needs and obstacles they face and identify what federal policy changes would help resolve these issues.

Despite the broad range of environmental and public health issues tackled by the diverse organizations, the meeting participants concurred that greater government transparency is essential to all of their respective missions. Participants agreed that with more information and better access to policymakers, communities are better equipped to protect their health and the health of their workplaces and ecosystems.

The conference looked at specific policy recommendations to improve the amount of, access to, and quality of information publicly available. Participants also reviewed proposals for empowering communities – especially minority and low-income communities – to use the information and have a voice in policymaking.

Among the topics considered at the environmental right-to-know meeting, the generation and disclosure of information on the identity and health risks of chemicals in use, as well as potentially safer substitutes, proved to be a major concern. With more than 84,000 chemicals manufactured or processed in the U.S., plus additional chemicals found in foods and food additives, pesticides, drugs, and cosmetics, understanding the potential ecological and human health impacts of so many substances presents an enormous information challenge.

However, the information needs identified by the public interest advocates extend far beyond industrial chemicals. The conference also addressed the need for access to enforcement and compliance information to hold regulators and industries accountable, the need for more monitoring of ecosystem health and wildlife populations, and better data on the demographics of impacted communities to better protect against environmental injustices, among many other needs.

Recognizing that information access alone is insufficient, participants also worked to craft policy solutions that would provide tools and opportunities that equip citizens to play an active role in protecting environmental and public health. Proposals were considered that would provide information in plain language that the public can understand and to develop methods for identifying and including the fullest range of stakeholder voices.

The Obama administration, which has made improving executive branch openness a priority, also was represented at the conference. White House policy advisor Steven Croley and EPA Chief Information Officer Malcolm Jackson addressed the gathering and took questions from the audience; they were followed by a panel of career civil servants from three agencies working on transparency initiatives. The officials reviewed several of the administration's recent open government initiatives, setting the stage for the subsequent conversations on how to move the administration's transparency agenda forward and address environmental concerns. These actions have opened a window of opportunity to advance a proactive agenda to create the federal policies and processes needed to improve public access to information, giving communities a strong voice in the decision making process.

Conference Themes

Several overarching themes emerged from the deliberations. The participants strongly felt that the concerns of environmental justice communities need to be more fully incorporated into agency activities and decision making. The needs of low-income and minority communities that are impacted disproportionately by environmental threats should be made a much higher priority. Efforts to improve environmental right to know should also take into account the unique needs of workers and workplace safety, as well as populations that are especially vulnerable to public health threats, such as pregnant women, children, and the elderly.

The issue of government efficiency that may be gained through greater transparency was raised repeatedly during the conference. Agencies themselves use information to meet their statutory obligations, and government workers frequently encounter the same obstacles to finding and understanding information encountered by the public. Improved information access would improve government efficiency, reduce costs, and produce better policy outcomes. Conference participants also asserted that consumer markets would benefit from more information, such as information on the health and safety of chemicals and their substitutes. Information empowers consumers to push for the adoption of safer products and cleaner industrial processes.

Additionally, conference participants want the federal government to be a leader and push states to adopt policies that lead to more transparency and community engagement. This federal leadership should include demonstrating the adoption of best practices, including those formulated and used by the states. Several states have implemented successful policies that exceed federal open government requirements. The conference participants want the federal government to incorporate such policies as models for the development of broader federal policies.

Finally, participants also widely called for more geographic information from the government. The ability to use maps to track environmental progress, monitor threats, and identify new concerns is crucial to protecting the public. Geographic data allow researchers to monitor water and air quality, give communities tools to fend off polluting industries, and help policymakers identify populations impacted by environmental degradation.

Environmental Right to Know in Action

Participants provided numerous examples highlighting how information and the public's right to know about health threats are being used to push for safer and healthier communities. For example, the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ), a nonprofit advocacy group, recently released findings from a report commissioned to educate consumers about unsafe chemicals found in children's toys. The report, Toxic Toys R Us, commissioned by CHEJ and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, is part of an effort by CHEJ and others to hold toy manufacturers and retailers accountable for the safety of the products they provide.

Focusing on the giant retailer, Toys R Us, the report found that almost three-quarters of the company's toys tested contained high levels of chlorine, indicating that they were likely made with PVC, a toxic plastic and a potential health risk for children. One-fifth of tested toys contained tin, indicating the likely presence of toxic organotins. Toy packaging also was found to contain chlorine and tin.

Similarly, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition effort by numerous nonprofit groups, uses government, industry, and academic databases of hazardous chemicals to inform consumers about chemicals of concern in cosmetics like shampoos and lipsticks and to push for safer products.

Participants also cited examples of efforts to improve public participation as a means to improving health and safety protections. Labor organizations recently secured from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) an agreement to engage employees and their union representatives during environmental inspections of the nation’s most dangerous industrial facilities under the Clean Air Act.

The public interest organizations represented at the conference agreed to continue to develop the policy recommendations and work for their implementation. A public release of the finalized recommendations is planned for early 2011.

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