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RE: turning information into action

I'm not sure I have a complete answer to how we do this, but I can at least provide some illustrative stories based on by experience.

I'm often contacted by folks who have already done a lot of work to try to solve an environment issue in their neighborhood. They've heard of a permit that is being issued, or there has been an accident, and that caused them to research the compliance history of the facility, check the TRI emissions,look up health data, etc. . They get all the information needed to scare the heck out of them. So, they call the local health district or send an email message through a website or call the state environmental agency and triumphantly present what they know. Then they wait and wait and wait and nothing happens. If they are persistent, they follow up with phone call, and get passed around to everyone who can't (or won't) do anything.

So when they call me (and believe me, by the time someone digs up my number, they've done a lot of research), they are usually on the verge of giving up. The information they have gathered has, in a sense, been disempowering, because after you've done that much work, you expect something to happen.

The first thing that I have to do, as a environmentalist, is convince them not to give up - that there is some way to take what they have and use it. Training materials are, I think, a great start. Perhaps better is on-site trainings, as the EPA has been providing for Title V, in conjunction with a library that is willing to be a repository of information on the subject, with a staff person who has attended the training and has a good knowledge of online resources.

But also, EPA needs to provide case studies of citizens groups who have made a difference, especially those who overcame bureaucratic obstacles that were in the way. I don't expect that EPA is going to say the state agencies are awful (though they mostly are), or that EPA will say "gee, filing a compliant with us on line is usually a dead end and you need a more aggressive strategy". But, EPA can provide examples of citizens who have ignored the first person who said "we don't have authority to do anything about that".

It is also imperative, in my mind, that citizens always be given information about the next step. A web page that says "File a Complaint Online" should have tell the citizen when they can expect a reply and what do if they don't get one, or what to do if the answer they get is unsatisfactory.

One final note on this: EPA needs to have more information specialists who are avaible to the public. Here in Cleveland, at the Region 5 field office in Westlake, the Agency got a guy several years ago who is, I believe, actually part of some grant project to employ people over 55. At any rate, he was put to work as a public information person and he took his job very seriously. When people call me now asking how to dispose of used motor oil or how to check for radon, I refer them to him. I always say, call me back if you don't get an adequate answer. The only calls back I have had are from people who want to say thanks. They are usually greatful because this guy gives them an answer. If he doesn't know it, he finds it out and calls them back. There's another group in Cleveland that fields lots of calls on lead issues. They told me they have 50% fewer calls because EPA no longer refers people to them. This type of thing maybe a role that libraries could play, but it is not likely they will want to, nor should they have to.

EPA already spends a great deal of outreach to the small business community, doing some of the things I've mentioned above. I think it would be a good idea to look at those programs to see what works. Also, EPA could do some studies of how their database, and other information, is being used. This might turn up good information. Finally, if some co-operative relationship develops between some libraries and the EPA as a result of this forum, there should be a means for the libraries to provide feedback to EPA about whether the information resources are adequate.

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