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Fernald Citizens Advisory Board (Fernald, Ohio, USA)
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This case study was written by Sandy Heierbacher, Director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), in 2001 as part of a consultancy for the Center for Disease Control's National Immunization Program.
Problems and Purpose
The Department of Energy facility in Fernald, Ohio, was used to produce high-purity uranium metal for nuclear weapons from 1951 to 1989. During this period, over one million pounds of uranium were released into the surrounding environment.
In the late 1980s, the local public became aware of contamination caused by the site in the local groundwater, and in the soil and buildings at the site. Fernald was actually one of the first sites to become known nationally for acknowledged federal environmental mismanagement, and the problem was featured in 60 Minutes and as a cover story in Time Magazine. DOE was required to pay damages to local residents and to the state of Ohio and agreed to allow the state to oversee its waste disposal activities.
Conclusions and demands of local citizen groups, the US and Ohio EPA and the DOE managers at Fernald, all of whom were concerned about reducing the human health risk and environmental damage in the area, led to the creation of the Fernald Citizens Advisory Board (FCAB) in 1993. FCAB was established in order to provide policy and technical advice regarding important clean-up decisions to the regulated and regulating agencies.
FCAB is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Site-specific Advisory Board (or Citizens Advisory Board) chartered under the Federal Advisory Committee Act to provide advice to the DOE on issues pertaining to the remediation (clean-up) of the DOE site in Fernald, Ohio.
FCAB recommendations and advice provide the DOE with an understanding of the issues and concerns that are important to local stakeholders and ensure that these perspectives are incorporated into planning and decision making on the Fernald Environmental Management Project (FEMP) site.
The Board was to not only include the easily identifiable affected parties, but also individual residents who live in the vicinity of the site. It was to be small in size, involving less than 20 people, to have a clear mission, to include governmental officials as nonvoting members, to reflect the variety of views in the surrounding community and to attempt to reach consensus. Administrative and technical support was to be provided by the government.
FCAB will most likely meet until 2006, after which the clean-up should be complete, future use will be determined, and the facility will no longer be staffed. At this point in 2002, it is expected that 900 of the 1050 acres of federal land will be a natural area, with hiking trails and a possible educational facility, and that a safe disposal facility will remain on the site.
A maximum of 15 members serve on FCAB. These include labor representatives, local government officials, representatives from a local environmental activist group, academia and local business representatives, along with a number of non-voting members from DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Ohio EPA, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Members come from neighboring communities, local governments, trade unions and area universities.
To ensure continuity of membership, half of the initial board members agreed to serve two-year terms and the other half agreed to three-year terms, although approximately 75% of the original members still serve on the Board nearly 10 years later. FCAB members receive no compensation for their time, but travel expenses are reimbursed.
FCAB seeks to maintain a diverse membership with perspectives that span the broad range of individuals and groups who are affected by the remediation and future use of the Fernald site. In order to protect against bias, an outside convener was hired to interview, screen and select the participants.
Full board meetings and sub-committee meetings are held monthly, typically lasting approximately four hours and two hours, respectively. Central items, such as budget and remediation progress, are evaluated by the full board, while committees with three to five members work on more long-term and in-depth projects. FCAB tackles topics and issues that are important to the local community and relevant to constructive citizen input.
Guided by a Chair and Vice Chair from within the membership of the group, FCAB also receives facilitation support from an independent and neutral consultant. The consultant serves as the facilitator during all FCAB meetings and sub-committee meetings. A staff member of the Fernald DOE Public Affairs Department devotes a substantial portion of her time to FCAB as well.
Four public affairs staff members at the Department of Energy’s Ohio office currently serve as “counselors” who bridge the gap between the public and specific DOE projects (water, soils, etc.). These counselors prepare for FCAB meetings and other public participation events by anticipating what questions the public may have and obtaining answers at staff meetings and other venues.
FCAB members recognized that their small group, however diverse, could not represent every viewpoint of the public. In order to obtain broader input from the public about some of the more controversial issues and to demonstrate their own independence from the Department of Energy, FCAB conducted its own public outreach efforts. The Board held various well-publicized meetings, workshops and presentations to increase public understanding and involvement in the remediation levels, future use and waste disposal issues.
Initially, FCAB was charged with the task of providing the DOE, the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA with recommendations regarding four primary questions: What should be the future of the Fernald site? What residual risk and remediation levels should remain following remediation? Where should the waste be disposed? What should be the priorities among remedial actions?
The task at hand was not easy or straightforward. Returning Fernald to reasonable conditions would require the safe disposal of millions of cubic yards of radioactively contaminated soils and materials. After 18 months of research, deliberation and analysis, FCAB presented comprehensive recommendations to the DOE regarding each of the four issues. Largely accepted by DOE and the site regulators as a blueprint for site decisions, many of the recommendations are being implemented at the site now.
The Department of Energy estimates that FCAB’s recommendations will save the taxpayers more than $2 billion over the lifetime of the project. This substantial savings is partly due to FCAB’s call for the acceleration of cleanup efforts (to be completed by 2006 instead of the DOE’s original 2020 goal). The amended cleanup estimate of $2.9 billion – $4.3 billion less than the original $7.2 billion estimate – resulted form years of savings in building maintenance expenses, salaries for workers and a number of other expenses. FCAB also saved a significant amount by recommending that 80% of the FEMP site’s waste remain on-site, and that off-site disposal be limited to 20% of the waste. Since it would have cost three times more to ship the waste than to construct the on-site disposal facility, an additional $700 million was saved.
Although FCAB’s original mission was fulfilled when their 1995 final report was issued, the Board reconvened later that year and decided – amongst themselves and with the DOE, the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA - that there is an ongoing need for formal informed public advice and recommendations to DOE on activities pertaining to the clean-up and future use of the Fernald site. FCAB experienced a period of uncertainty in focus after it produced the 1995 report, but has since focused its attentions on a Silos Project involving clean-up of a number of on-site silos which contain radioactive and other waste, and on establishing policies regarding the long-term stewardship of the site.
On average, between three and eight recommendations are made by FCAB each year. The recommendations they provide begin broadly (the site should be available for public recreational use), and then focus on particular suggestions (the network of trails should be of this type, and in these locations; records should be housed in this type of facility), and always include detailed information about how conclusions were made.
FCAB’s recommendation have a strong influence on policy decisions, mainly because of the high regard public officials have for their process. Managers at the Department of Energy in Fernald developed respect for the group and their work after reviewing the 1995 report. Many of the managers were surprised by the depth at which the group studied the issues involved, and the sound analysis of information and practical fact-based recommendations generated the managers’ respect toward the members of FCAB.
Since the same small group of individuals meets face-to-face over a long period of time, FCAB facilitates the exchange of information and viewpoints and the in-depth understanding of the topic at hand. Trust is built among the participants and, even if the group is unable to reach consensus on a particular issue, areas of disagreement are narrowed, conflicting parties recognize others’ concerns as legitimate, new alternatives and ideas emerge and, at the very least, the issues on the table become more clear to all parties.
FCAB is able to tackle contentious issues that involve stakeholders with conflicting values and needs. Since FCAB works at the local level, its members have a significant stake in the issues the board is addressing and are accountable for its results. The board has contributed to a better-informed public, more sustainable solutions to complicated problems, improved relationships among stakeholders and between government officials and citizens, and increased public buy-in for government decisions and programs.
One senior DOE official told the Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management: “The Department [of Energy] has learned the power of having the public involved in decision-making. For example, the Citizens Advisory Board at Fernald has dramatically changed the department’s cleanup strategy at that Ohio site. The results will be a far more expeditious cleanup, with a savings of some $2 billion compared with the cost of the department’s original plans. By opening the process to meaningful public input, the department is empowered to make decisions it could never make unilaterally.”
Challenges and Limitations
A surprisingly high number of the original participants still serve on FCAB. A tightly-knit, highly informed and active group can intimidate potential new members, preventing the Board from evolving and ensuring that qualified people have the opportunity to serve on the Board.
FCAB went through an awkward, uncertain stage after it completed its initial report and decided to continue meeting. It was some time (18 to 24 months) before the DOE realized that FCAB needed to have a specific task to focus on in order to be effective. One alternative which would address this and the previous problem would be to establish new FCABs – with new memberships – each time the Fernald facility or state DOE needed to obtain informed public input on a complex issue.
Running FCAB is time consuming and resource intensive. It requires genuine support from the convening agency, including financial support, information, guidance, time and expertise.
FCAB’s recommendations are taken seriously by managers at the Fernald DOE. FCAB has a strong influence on policy decisions, but this influence is not guaranteed. The public officials involved with the Fernald facility have developed a great deal of respect for the FCAB members and their recommendations. Working closely with senior management at DOE, convincing them that citizen participation is important and worthwhile and that it was worth their time and effort to go beyond what was required of management was very important for FCAB’s success.
Resources Used to Develop Case
Interviews conducted by Sandy Heierbacher with Sue Walpole, the FEMP site’s Technical Liaison to the FCAB, Gary Stegner, Deputy Designated Federal Official, and John Applegate, former FCAB Chair.
Applegate, John S, Beyond the Usual Suspects: The Use of Citizens Advisory Boards in Environmental Decisionmaking. Indiana Law Journal, 1998, Vol. 73:903, pp. 903-957. Available at http://www.law.indiana.edu/ilj/v73/no3/applegate.html
Ann L. MacNaughton, Collaborative Problem-Solving in Environmental Dispute Resolution. Natural Resources & Environment, Summer 1996, Vol. 3, Issue 3.
English, Mary R., Amy K. Gibson, David L. Feldman and Bruce E. Tonn. Stakeholder Involvement: Open Processes for Reaching Decisions about the Future Uses of Contaminated Sites (Final Report). Waste Management Research and Educational Institute. University of Tennessee, Knoxville. September 1993.
Fernald Citizens Advisory Board website. http://www.fernaldcab.org/
Recommendations on Remediation Levels, Waste Disposition, Priorities, and Future Use. July 1995. Fernald Citizens Task Force (former name for the Fernald Citizens Advisory Board).
U.S. Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management website. Information on Site-Specific Advisory Boards: http://www.em.doe.gov/public/ssab/