Emergency Preparedness and Response

The Right Way to Use EPCRA for Good Risk Communication

Why does the public understand that these risks have probabilistic statements of risk associated with them, while the risks posed by chemicals are classified as safe or harmful?

There are a lot of reasons for these inconsistencies. The primary reason is that these risks are personal choices over which the public has control. The corollary speaks to the root of industry’s problem under EPCRA.

When citizens have no control of the chemicals that industry uses, abuses, or releases to the community, the public expresses alarm, distrust, and outrage. EPCRA can actually help douse these fires rather than fan them.

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Industry Must Open the Doors

EPCRA gives the power to the people to request emergency planning, chemical reporting, and chemical release reporting information—from the SERC, the LEPCs, or EPA. The public has been provided some leverage. Industry should recognize that this power has led and will continue to lead to a spate of public requests for information and, therefore, countless headaches.

However, because the law provides a sense of control to the public, it has increased the public’s desire to truly learn about technology, chemicals, waste minimization, and health problems in the community. Industry should seize this opportunity and accept the challenge.

According to Peter Sandman, who wrote, Explaining Environmental Risk, prepared for EPA’s Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) Assistance Office, “Any environmental risk controversy has two levels. The substantive issue is what to do; the process issue is who decides. So long as people feel disempowered on the process issue, they are understandably unbending on the substantive issue.”

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Keep the Doors Open

Facilities have three options for addressing the “process” issues. The most common method is to inform the public about what you are doing. A better option is to seek the public’s input and/or feedback on proposed plans or strategies that may affect the public.

The best option, although not always workable, is to have the public share power. When citizens participate in a risk management decision they are far more likely to accept a decision for three reasons:

  1. They have instituted changes that make it objectively more acceptable.
  1. They have proceeded past the process issue of control and mastered the technical data on risk—that is, they have learned why the experts consider it acceptable.
  1. They have been heard and not excluded, and so can appreciate the legitimacy of the decision, even if they continue to dislike the decision itself.

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