Environmental democracy

OUR PLANET 8.6 - Chemicals

Environmental democracy


describes how Right-to-Know programmes
are enabling the public to participate in
environmental decision-making

The new term 'environmental democracy', now taking hold, reflects increasing recognition that environmental issues must be addressed by all those affected by their outcome, not just by governments and industrial sectors. It captures the principle of equal rights for all those in the environment debate - including the public, community groups, advocates, industrial leaders, workers, governments, academics and health care professionals. For those whose daily lives reflect the quality of their environment, participation in environmental decision-making is as important as in education, health care, finance and government.

Access to environmental information for all who choose to participate in such decision-making is integral to the concept of environmental democracy. The policy of Right-to-Know, now nearly a decade old, provides the foundation, and advocates providing basic information to the public. Informed with basic facts about the quality of their environment, citizens can become active participants in identifying and resolving issues at both local and national levels.

The United States experience

This is a flexible policy, adopted by many countries and shaped to meet their particular needs. In the United States, the Right-to-Know programme has provided key information on specific facilities to the public since 1988. Its citizens have broad access to information on over 600 toxic chemicals which routinely enter the environment. Captured in a database called the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), the information includes the amounts of the chemicals released to air, land and water, the amounts shipped off-site for treatment or disposal and the amounts managed by recycling, incineration, etc. United States citizens have used this to understand their local environment better, to work with local facilities to reduce harmful releases where possible, and to develop local planning requirements that reflect a recognition of potential accidental releases.

The concept of Right-to-Know and programmes like the TRI, that build upon this powerful principle, are rapidly emerging at all levels of government. Building on the experiences of countries like Canada, the United Kingdom and The Netherlands - as well as the United States - national Right-to-Know programmes are being developed in such countries as Mexico, Japan and the Czech Republic. In other nations, like Australia, programmes are being designed and implemented at state level, to reflect differing industrial and agricultural patterns across the country. In the United States, as the experience with the TRI has grown, states have developed their own Right-to-Know programmes to reflect their individual needs. And local ordinances collect the even more individualized data needed to understand fully the specific industries and activities in local communities.

Right-to-Know programmes provide both an opportunity to participate in environmental decision-making and a responsibility to understand and assess the meaning of the data fully. Information on releases is not enough, by itself, to characterize the impact a facility may have on a community. It must be combined with information on exposures and hazards to assess whether there is a potential risk; and additional, more sophisticated data must be collected and assessed to identify the risk's magnitude. The obligation to use information responsibly is crucial to the programmes' continued success.

The concept is evolving: what we now see is but a glimpse of what we will see in years to come. Just as consumers have demanded clear identification of what is in the food they eat and the medicines they take, so the public is now expressing its right to know what is in the air it breathes, the water it drinks and the land upon which it lives and plays. As it becomes more sophisticated in understanding the environment and the key interactions which shape the quality of communities, it will demand a more complete accounting. Communities are asking to know exactly what chemicals are being shipped along their roads, placed in their landfills, or stored for future use. There is a demand for information on the exposure of workers as well as on releases to the environment. Governments are being asked to account for activities that may affect the environment: all United States Government facilities must provide TRI information, just like industry.

Empowering communities

The concept has been hotly debated and will continue to be so. Clearly, Right-to-Know is an effective tool in empowering communities and citizens' groups to approach industry on an equal footing - and to question and, if need be, challenge industrial and governmental decisions on environment quality. This new approach to identifying and solving environmental problems involves a change of culture for many in government and industry.

Change is always a challenge and will take time to complete. But what is clear is that Right-to-Know programmes have opened the door for the public to influence decisions affecting their well-being. The door will not be closed: it will need to open even wider as providing basic data leads to requests for more specific information. Together the new term of environmental democracy and the established concept of Right-to-Know can lead all nations to a healthier, sustainable environment.

Dr. Susan Hazen is Director of the Environmental Assistance Division, Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C.

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