Tacoma Smelter and EPA
EPA Brings Community Deliberation to Jobs versus Environment Dispute
Smelter and EPA. In a famous dispute that deeply divided the community
of Tacoma, Washington in the early 1980s over jobs and environmental
health, EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus decided to bring
the hard choices and uncertainties over controlling arsenic emissions
to the public. Regional EPA staff convened public workshops in
which smelter workers, local residents, and environmentalists
discussed their values and fears face-to-face. The process has
helped to build community capacities for workforce retraining,
more diversified economic growth, and environmental dispute resolution
in subsequent years. Case study plus.
Study Plus: The Tacoma Smelter and Civic Discovery
Carmen Sirianni, who is a member of the CPN Managing Editorial
William Ruckelshaus returned to head the EPA under President Reagan,
after two years of bitter controversy over the president's previous
administrator. He was quickly confronted with a jobs versus environment
dispute that was polarizing not only the community of Tacoma,
Washington, but the nation. He recognized that the public's expectation
of "participatory democracy" had become part of the fabric of
environmental regulation since he had served as EPA's first administrator
in 1970-74 under President Nixon. And he recognized, as well,
that controversies such as the one brewing in Tacoma would become
increasingly common, and should not be settled by those in Washington,
D.C. who do not themselves bear the risks and do not have to live
and work with each otherand with the consequences of top-down
regulatory action. The community itself must confront the scientific
uncertainties and difficult choices. Beyond this, Ruckelshaus
had little idea where the now famous "Tacoma process" would lead.
was the process of establishing national arsenic emissions standards
for copper smelting and glass manufacturing. Tacoma was the home
of the only copper smelter in the nation to use ore with high
arsenic content, and accounted for 25 percent of inorganic arsenic
emissions nationwide. Having just returned to the EPA under pressure
of a court order to establish such standards in compliance with
the Clean Air Act of 1980, Ruckelshaus committed himself before
the National Academy of Sciences to establishing a participatory
process for risk management:
To effectively manage the risk, we must seek new ways to involve
the public in the decision-making process. Whether we believe
in participatory democracy or not, it is part of our social regulatory
fabric. Rather than praise or lament it, we should seek more imaginative
ways to involve the various publics impacted by the substance
at issue. They need to be involved early on and they need to be
informed if their participation is to be meaningful.
chose Tacoma as the place for public deliberation about acceptable
risk. The issue in Tacoma itself centered around which kind of
available pollution control technologies to require. The most
expensive of these could perhaps further reduce the risk of cancer
deaths due to arsenic emissions below the estimated two per year
achievable with secondary hooding. But they would not reduce them
to zero and would be so costly that the smelter would likely have
to close. This would leave its 600 employees and some 500 others
without jobs in a county already experiencing 11 percent unemployment,
lead to a loss of 20 million dollars in goods and services, 2
million dollars in taxes, and make the nation completely dependent
on imported sources for arsenic. The EPA's proposed standard would
take all these factors into account, but the Puget Sound Air Pollution
Control Agency and local environmental groups would not.
In the face
of increasing scientific uncertainties about establishing clear
thresholds of safety from carcinogens, and vehement criticism
of EPA from all sides in the debate over jobs versus the environment,
Ruckelshaus decided to postpone a decision until EPA Region 10
administrators could convene a series of public workshops before
the legally required formal public hearing. These would give Tahomans
a chance to understand the risk analysis process and to deliberate
about costs and benefits of different levels of regulatory control.
Perhaps a consensus would emerge, some thought, though EPA denies
ever intending that consensus was the goal, or that assembled
citizens would have the power to vote directly on different alternatives.
As Ruckelshaus told a press conference, "For me to sit here in
Washington and tell the people of Tacoma what is an acceptable
risk would be at best arrogant and at worst inexcusable."
decision, however, he was criticized vehemently in editorial pages
around the country, and by a broad range of environmental groups.
The New York Times compared him to the Roman Caesars
who would ask the amphitheater crowds to signal thumbs up or thumbs
down whether a defeated gladiator should live or die. The head
of the local Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club said "it is up
to the EPA to protect public health, not to ask the public what
it is willing to sacrifice not to die from cancer."
himself quoted Thomas Jefferson in defense of his decision to
involve the public in deliberating about the difficult issues
of environmental hazards:
we think the people not enlightened enough to exercise their control
with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from
them, but to inform their discretion.
In the midst
of wide media coverage, both local and national, EPA administrators
convened three public workshops, attended several others called
by independent groups such as the Steelworkers' local from the
smelter, held a formal public hearing a few months later, and
put copies of the administrative record on file at local libraries
to facilitate broader access and ongoing discussion. The three
EPA workshops, held in local public schools on three August evenings
over a ten-day period, were designed with help from local environmental
groups, the public health department, and a consulting firm with
a public participation specialist.
attendance was about eight hundred. Administrators first presented
how agency scientists arrived at various risk estimates, and then
broke down the larger meetings into three smaller groups to promote
face-to-face dialogue, as three top-level EPA staff and other
state environmental and public health officials rotated through
each of them. Experienced facilitators, who were not identified
with any agency or position, recorded all questions on flip charts
and led the discussions. And two professors from local universities
gave closing remarks on the process of risk assessment and risk
of the public discourse did focus on various technical issues,
participants were also concerned with issues of equity and values,
and were intensely personal in their questions and their accounts.
These ranged from the likelihood of their children getting cancer
and not being able to eat vegetables from their own gardens, to
what it means to be without a job when no one wants to hire or
retrain middle aged workers. As Steelworker representatives testified,
they were quite aware of cancer risks, since it was the disproportionate
death rates of their own members that provided the conclusive
proof of the dangers of arsenic emissions. But the smelter had
also provided them with what they referred to as "a good life,"
and this was suddenly about to be snatched away from them.
At the formal
hearing several months later, the Steelworkers union presented
national data on greater increased death and illness rates that
result from prolonged unemployment as compared to arsenic emissions.
And national groups like the American Lung Association coordinated
the local coalition favoring more stringent emission standards.
Six other national environmental groups also focused attention
on Tacoma, and the mayor convened an all-day televised workshop
with invited experts fielding written questions from the audience.
was one of "civic discovery," and facilitated social learning in a number of ways. Despite
substantial administrative costs, regional EPA staff felt that
the process educated them not only about alternative solutions,
but helped build regular contacts with the public for further
engaged participation. They took much pride in being "way out
ahead in real participatory government and public involvement"
even before this series of public workshops became a special part
of EPA lore known as the "Tacoma process." Public comment forms
elicited input on how to further improve the workshop agenda,
and on the kind of information and discussion that would be most
helpful in future ones. The workshops also enabled local administrators
to educate headquarters staff in Washington about what it meant
to be on the front line in such disputes, and how important it
was for local staff to control the process and reframe the discourse
in terms that were not purely scientific.
of the Sierra Club chapter, who had been so critical initially,
admitted at the end that the Clean Air Act requires public involvement
so that the public can appreciate how difficult such regulatory
decisions are, and so that no easy villains are scapegoated. This
was an important step away from the rights orientation embodied
in the Clean Air Act of 1970, which explicitly prohibited weighing
other costs. In a subsequent Roper poll some 58 percent said they
appreciated the chance to have input into the deliberations. The
participants in the workshops and hearings, as well as many who
followed the lively coverage in the print and broadcast media,
had a chance to hear the real voices of those who experienced
the risks and benefits, hopes and fears, in different terms.
occurred without disruption, despite the intense feelings of many,
and concerns among staff that security precautions would be required.
Placards polarized around "Jobs!" and "Health!" at one workshop
were followed by some saying "Both!" at the next. As Ruckelshaus
later noted, "Even the residents of Vashon Island, who were directly
exposed to the pollution and yet had no employment or financial
stake in the smelter, began to ask whether there was a means of
keeping the smelter going while reducing pollution levels. They
saw the workers from the smelterencountered them in the flesh
and bloodand began incorporating the workers' perspective
into their own solutions."
itself was forced to shut down in 1985 before new emissions standards
were issued because of declining world market prices, and it became
part of the Commencement Bay Superfund cleanup effort. But, partly
as a result of the face-to-face process of public deliberation,
residents of Tacoma had begun redefining the goal as creating
a more diverse local economy, and had already begun attracting
and developing more environmentally safe businesses. Ten years
later, Colin Conant, Executive Director of the Private Industry
Council for Tacoma, looked back on these early efforts of the
Dislocated Workers Project for those laid off by the Asarco smelter:
a model for retraining the workforce, and the community got behind
it. We got many people involved on advisory committees: the labor
union, United Way, the Private Industry Council, Asarco, the Economic
Development Board, employees, and the State Employment Security
Department. People might do it that way now, but back then nobody
was. The support made a big difference in how people adjusted.
It could have been much more psychologically disruptive. There
were far fewer casualties than there might have been without so
many people and organizations backing us up. Since Asarco's closing,
there have been several more closings in the area and we basically
applied the same model. We learned a lot from how we did it then.
the Asarco experience helped build civic capacities for handling
other environmental disputes, such as that at the Simpson Paper
Mill, which was polluting local water supplies. The Asarco model
was refined, all stakeholders were brought in, and no lawsuits
resulted. As then mayor Doug Southerland noted, "What really came
out of this [Asarco effort] was a process and a group of people
who were used to looking at an issue together without taking a
of deliberation in Tacoma was far from ideal in many ways. The
workshops were rather hurriedly planned under pressure of a court
order to establish emissions standards. The haste was particularly
unfortunate in view of the several years of conflict and caricature
on both sides of the dispute about risk from the smelter, which
had preceded these face-to-face discussions. The workshops were
also rather large, even when they broke up into three smaller
groups, with an average of 75 in each, and sometimes double that
number. This served empathy better than deliberationand for
some the size even seemed to contribute to further polarization.
were open and forthcoming, but were not really prepared to help
frame the nontechnical aspects of the discussions in ways that
would produce communication among participants about underlying
values. Nor, does it seem, were the others who helped design the
workshops. The media played a democratizing role to the extent
that it tended to treat both lay and expert perceptions of risk
as legitimate. But they sometimes portrayed scientific uncertainty
as dramatic incompetence, thus reducing the chances of a more
fruitful dialogue between cultural and technical rationalities.
Some of the participants not only expected considerably more deliberation
and voting in a town meeting format, but wanted to know about
the whole range of other pollutants and not just lung cancer from
Tacoma as revealing serious flaws in the public decision-making
model. Accompanying the hearings was a survey of participants
conducted by a psychology doctoral student and partially funded
by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, which revealed
that most residents vastly misstated EPA's estimate of cancer
risks despite the agency's considerable attempts to inform them.
Indeed, people had a tendency to substitute informal risk analysis,
based on their own or family members' experiences, for formal
analysis based on scientific estimates. And their factual knowledge
of formal risk estimates and proposed standards did not, in any
case, determine their own risk estimates or their positions on
desired levels of regulatory control.
of this, and the difficulties of developing a public "voting"
mechanism capable of measuring the intensity as well as the direction
of people's preferences, one commentator suggests instead that
a modified expert decision-making model is the best solution for
such regulatory problems. In this model, agency staff would ask
the public hypothetical questions that explicitly set out tradeoffs
between different levels of pollution control, and people would
respond based solely on the accurate information in the questions,
rather than on the basis of their own informal risk estimates.
This method would also permit regulators to target more accurately
the full range of potential victims and beneficiaries, including
those who were geographically distant.
search for the mechanism of public choice that can produce more
rational results based on accurate information misses exactly
what is at the heart of civic discovery. The question is not how
to reflect and weigh existing preferences in the light
of scientifically accurate information about tradeoffs, as important
as the latter might be to inform decision making. Nor is it to
expect that answers to hypothetical questions in a survey can
tell us how to act as moral agents in real human relationships
in our communities. The question, rather, is how to facilitate
deliberation so that people can reflect on their preferences in
the process of listening to others, seek alternative solutions
in view of a broader conception of the common good, and build
a civic culture that can sustain a tradition of public deliberation
and active collaboration about such difficult issues. These other
techniques might help in this, but they are not a substitute for
public work together, which is usually messy and imperfect.
and Plough argue, the real challenge of risk communication and
decision making is to find ways for the cultural and technical
models of rationality to mutually inform one another, rather than
for the technical approach to preempt the cultural. If this is
so, then we must continue to explore ways of making the regulatory
process conducive to ongoing local deliberation where diverse
values and informal risk estimates are respected, and inevitable
scientific uncertainties are recognized and tolerated as part
of an honest process of discovery.
the flaws of the Tacoma process, it was an important early step
that helped to trigger other community problem solving capacities
on environmental dispute settlement, worker retraining, and economic
diversification. And it also enhanced capacities for learning
within EPA itself on how to approach comparative risk and risk
communication in a more open and deliberative fashion, and set
an example of participatory democracy for a number of other EPA
programs that have since emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s.
to the references below, you might consult the following:
Beyond Nimby: Hazardous Waste Siting in Canada and the United
States (Washington, DC: Brookings, 1994), which presents
detailed cases of public deliberation in facilitating siting as
a way to move beyond the dilemmas posed by "Not In My Backyard."
Superfund: The Political Economy of Environmental Risk
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1994), and especially
his proposal in chapter 9 for ways to make public deliberation
at the state and local level an essential feature of Superfund
Ruckelshaus, Science, Risk and Public Policy, speech
before the National Academy of Sciences, June 22, 1983 (Washington,
D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1983).
quotes are from Esther Scott, "Managing Environmental Risks: the
Case of ASARCO," Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University,
Case Program, 1988, pages 1 and 6. See also Sheldon Krimsky and
Alonzo Plough, Environmental Hazards: Communicating Risks
as a Social Process (Dover, Mass.: Auburn House, 1988), chapter
5; Reich, "Policy Making in a Democracy," 147-50; Henry Lee, "Risk
Management and Public Participation: A Case Study of the ASARCO
Smelter," Cambridge, Harvard University, 1984.
Reich, "Policy Making in a Democracy," in The Power of Public
Ideas, ed. Robert Reich (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
1988), 123-56. For a compelling critique of cost-benefit analysis
and decision techniques that complements Reich's, see Stuart Hill,
Democratic Values and Technological Change (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1992), chapter 2.
Quoted from a later interview by Reich, in "Policy Making in a
Quoted in Ronald Heifitz, Leadership Without Easy Answers
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 95.
See Krimsky and Plough, Environmental Hazards, 203-216,
302; and the evaluation by the public participation consultant,
Susan Hall, "Arsenic and Old Smelters: Community Involvement in
Risk Assessment," in Hazardous Wastes and Environmental Emergencies
(Washington, DC: Hazardous Materials Control Research Institute,
Brian Baird, "Tolerance for Environmental Health Risks: the Influence
of Knowledge, Benefits, Voluntariness, and Environmental Attitudes,"
Risk Analysis 6:4 (1986), 425-35. He notes further that
those attending the workshops clustered at either extreme of the
attitudinal continuum, rather than being representative of the
local population, and that at these extremes respondents also
varied as to how voluntary or involuntary they perceived the risks
from the smelter to beboth of which raise significant questions
for deliberative democracy. Baird, it should be noted, was also
president of Tahomans for a Cleaner Environment, and a prominent
environmental spokesperson during the dispute.
Gregory Call, "Arsenic, ASARCO, and the EPA: Cost-Benefit Analysis,
Public Participation, and Polluter Games in the Regulation of
Hazardous Air Pollutants," Ecology Law Quarterly 12:3
(1985), 567-617, especially 595ff.
Krimsky and Plough, Environmental Hazards, 302ff. This
study was itself funded by the EPA to help sort out the issue
of public participation in risk communication, a task also urged
by a National Academy of Sciences report of 1983, and later by
EPA's own Science Advisory Board. Krimsky's important activist
and deliberative role in the DNA controversy in Cambridge, Massachusetts
in the 1970s was well known. See Sheldon Krimsky, Genetic
Alchemy: the Social History of the Recombinant DNA Controversy
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982); and "Regulating Recombinant DNA
Research," in Dorothy Nelkin, ed., Controversy: the Politics
of Technical Decisions, second ed. (Beverly Hills: Sage,
1984), 251-80. See also Daniel Fiorino, "Environmental Risk and
Democratic Process," Columbia Journal of Environmental Law
14:2 (1989), 506ff.; and "Technical and Democratic Values in Risk
Analysis," Risk Analysis 9:3 (1989), 293-99; Heifitz,
96-97; and author's interview with Deborah Martin, Office of State,
Regional and Local Planning, U.S.Environmental Protection Agency,
March 1994, who also generously supplied materials on current
comparative risk projects.
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