At the Oil & Gas OpenHour last night, much of our discussion related to how we can convert data about the environment and the world around us into action that holds polluters accountable. This Guide to Environmental Protection in Louisiana from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic covers the process in Louisiana-specific terms, but much of the guide is applicable to advocacy processes everywhere in the USA. Here's a general overview, with some additions based on last night's OpenHour:
Step 1) Gather Information
- Conduct environmental screening tests using low-cost sensors or mapping methods. Get used to paying attention to how the air and water around you looks/smells -- is it different at different times of day? Record observations. It is a good idea to collect information about the water and air quality around you whenever you move somewhere new or the seasons change, so that you have baseline data to compare to if you do notice pollution in the future.
- Find out if neighbors are noticing the same environmental or health impacts that you are. Youth cancer cases may be particularly indicative of environmental hazards. NextDoor and neighborhood associations could be good networks for finding this sort of information by voluntary disclosure (public records are likely to be limited due to privacy regulations on health records). I See Change and Crisis Cleanup are examples of digitally hosted community networks that might be useful for tracking local environmental hazards.
- Be as rigorous and specific as possible as you gather data. Answer the "four Ws": what is the problem? where is the problem? when did the problem occur? who is responsible for the problem? If possible, follow up on initial screening for water/air issues with more rigorous tests in problem locations. The more hard evidence and detailed information, the better -- gather photos, videos, sensor readings, location coordinates, etc.- Request public notice and access government information to find out what information about pollution is on public record. Are there local companies that have requested changes to what they are permitted to emit? Are there any new plants proposed?
Step 2) Take Action
- Report the problem to environmental regulators (NRC, US EPA, state departments of environmental quality or natural resources, local health department or sewerage and water board), elected officials (city and parish representatives, or state representatives), or local advocacy organizations (local environmental protection orgs and advocacy orgs).
- Publicly comment, if you have proactively identified a potential hazard by paying attention to public notices for permit applications. Any citizen can submit a written public comment, or a verbal comment at a public hearing. These comments are taken into account by government agencies evaluating permits or creating regulations.
- Advocate for better policies. Policy advocacy is basically ordinary people demanding more protective laws or regulatory standards, so that a broader group of people can be protected from hazards -- that way, rules don't just apply to one polluter or plant, but to all. Local zoning regulations are the first line in local decisions about which spaces are appropriate for industrial activities. Here are a few ways to participate in agency rulemaking: comment on a proposed rule, speak at a public hearing, petition for rulemaking, appeal a final rule to a court.
- Litigate. There are a few ways to take legal action: challenge a final permit decision, challenge a final rulemaking decision, file a citizen suit (also known as citizen enforcement), or file a private lawsuit.
Part 3) Building Public Participation
- Organize. In order to build an excellent case against a new polluter permit or for a new environmental regulation, it is essential to get as many people on board as possible. Building networks is essential for taking collective action. Many movements start with one-on-one conversations among neighbors. Activities like petitioning, phone banking, voting, calling representatives, and attending community meetings can build individual engagement. Hosting community meetings about an issue, and networking with existing neighborhood associations and nonprofits may help build more widespread support. You could even incorporate a new nonprofit or community organization around a particular issue. Connect with national organizations if the issue could benefit from the attention or finances of people outside of your direct community.
- Communications and media. Media is an essential tool for spreading word about the issue to broad networks of people. First develop a communications strategy: what is an effective way to communicate your message so that people understand it and feel called to participate and support you? Who in your movement will be responsible for communicating the message and engaging with the media? Then try to get attention from the press -- send a press release to media contacts, host a public media event like a rally, public action, or town hall, or write an opinion piece or letter to the editor for online or print media.
Part 4) What's the Law?
- Find relevant laws. It's possible to find relevant laws by researching commonly referenced environmental laws, looking at historical cases, or doing a quick internet search for a known law by title, book and section. Look at federal statutes and regulations, state statutes and regulations, and local ordinances for rules that may impact interactions with the environment.
- See p.68-77 in the guide for a list of commonly referenced federal and Louisiana environmental laws.
Does anyone else have additional information or resources about using grassroots data for advocacy?