By Dennis Archambault
If you attend public hearings on industrial permit requests, you’d think that minority communities are actively engaged in the process. However, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) administrators staffing these hearings remind the audience that only comments of scientific merit will be considered as appropriate testimony. That rules out nearly all of those who attend such hearings, except for a few academic and scientific professionals.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an opinion in January that challenged the degree to which MDEQ engages its minority population (Detroit News, Jan. 23, 2007). The EPA’s letter to MDEQ referenced a 1992 complaint by African Americans residents in the vicinity of a new Genesee power plant who felt they would be exposed to toxic chemicals. Specifically, the EPA told MDEQ to “ensure its public involvement process is available to all persons regardless of race, color, national origin…”
That sounds a lot like distinguishing between universal access to health insurance and universal access to health care. Undoubtedly, MDEQ can defend its performance, and does: “MDEQ public participation processes, over the past 20 years, have been expanded to address the concerns raised in the (EPA) letter.” EPA may be following formal communication channels to inform minority citizens, but it’s probably not using creative engagement strategies necessary to elicit proactive comments, and providing credible assurances as to their concerns.
It’s a typical challenge for institutional communicators attempting to reach minority audiences. In the case of environmental health, informing the community of a public hearing isn’t enough. There needs to be engagement to deal with fears and substantive concerns that may not have scientific merit but can be responded to appropriately. In its response, MDEQ says that “there has been no harm to public health from this facility.”
The positive outcome of this opinion has caused the MDEQ to review its minority engagement. “Although the historic complaint is closed, the EPA includes some recommendations to bolster our public participation processes,” according to a MDEQ spokesperson.
Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health