EPA partnership is lesson in futility for communities; Residents, industry make little headway in faltering test case


When the federal government's vaunted South Baltimore program for community-directed environmental action met recently, 14 people showed up. Chemical industry executives. Federal environmental officials. City health and planning employees. And only one of the 16,000 residents in the program's target area: a warehouse worker from Curtis Bay.

Halfway through, he fell asleep.

One thing was clear: Very little community is left in the Community Environmental Partnership.

The pilot project, set up here by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Washington headquarters in 1996, had promised a new era for American regulation of polluters. Instead of top-down enforcement, the EPA would set up partnerships -- environmental empowerment zones -- with the government giving residents and local industries the information and motivation to clean up pollution.

Six Baltimore-area neighborhoods -- Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Curtis Bay, Wagner's Point and Fairfield, plus part of Anne Arundel County's Brooklyn Park -- would establish the first partnership with local oil and chemical plants and show the country the way.

Almost three years later, a review of the partnership -- including interviews with 40 participants and the examination of hundreds of project documents -- shows a moribund program that has exhausted its government funding and survives on a small grant from the Johns Hopkins University. The partnership's failure serves as a case study of the difficulties facing the Clinton administration's targeted "empowerment"-style programs as they try to shoehorn resources into neighborhoods.

This spring, EPA headquarters dropped its sponsorship of the partnership, having spent $185,000 through a consulting firm, plus thousands on salaries. The project's stewardship rests with the EPA's Philadelphia office, where officials express doubts about its future.

"We in Baltimore were human test subjects for the EPA," says Terry Harris, 38, a partnership participant and Sierra Club member. "In the end, what we lab rats learned is that the EPA should enforce the law, instead of being in the community organizing business."

While acknowledging that the partnership failed here, EPA officials are repeating the experiment from St. Louis to Lawrence, Mass. The Baltimore partnership, they say, had some victories: It built momentum for a wildlife preserve, cleaned parks and gave residents data on water and air.

"Baltimore has been disappointing, but it's a lesson learned," says Dr. Lynn Goldman, an EPA assistant administrator.

Partnership members agree the EPA is not solely to blame. Several chemical industry leaders never embraced the idea. Residents were often more eager to fight. Maryland's turf-conscious environmental groups spread suspicion among South Baltimore residents about government goals.

But the EPA never set clear goals, according to an independent review of the project by the John Snow Institute, a Boston consulting firm. The EPA's chief liaison to the project, former Goucher College political scientist Hank Topper, clashed with the neighborhood's key leaders: five working-class grandmothers.

'Got along better before'

The EPA tried to enforce environmental laws and facilitate the partnership; but the two roles proved irreconcilable.

"They wanted industry and community to work together, but we got along better before the EPA showed up," says Ian Neuman, who runs Abbey Drum Co. and dropped out of the partnership early on.

When the federal government suggested a partnership in 1995, Doris McGuigan of Brooklyn and the other four grandmothers welcomed it. The EPA's senior managers, seeking to ingratiate themselves with a new Republican Congress, thought a Baltimore project exploring alternatives to traditional enforcement could create a model an hour's drive from Capitol Hill.

The grandmothers and EPA persuaded wary chemical executives to participate. On July 31, 1996, more than 160 people came to St. Athanasius Church in Curtis Bay for the partnership's first meeting.

Setting goals

Asked then about the partnership's goals, Topper said the EPA wanted the community and the industry to define their own. Residents set up committees: air quality, health effects, economic development, trash clean-up and housing, parks and water quality.

Many volunteers, including 6th District City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger and Curtis Bay neighborhood President Frank Lewis, were not contacted. The partnership's community clean-ups, intended to emphasize self-sufficiency, turned to city officials for shovels.

The partnership got a boost in March 1997 when the John Snow Institute opened the Community Environmental Partnership Office at 3606 S. Hanover St. The institute paid the $500-a-month rent and provided part-time staffing.

The office's conference room provided a meeting place for committees, but attendance dropped. Committees distributed short reports, but few recommendations were pursued. Frustrated with the pace, two committee chairs dropped out.

Now, the office is locked and empty during business hours.

Over the past year, only the air quality committee has met regularly. That group had success: a comprehensive identification of pollution sources in the partnership's area. But unexpected events derailed their work.

The day before Thanksgiving 1996, at a Brooklyn flower shop, Topper met with McGuigan and two other grandmothers, Ann Bonenberger of Brooklyn and Jeannette Skrzecz, the president of the Wagner's Point neighborhood group.

Fed up with foul air and a high cancer rate, Skrzecz had hired the University of Maryland's law clinic to defend her community. Topper told Skrzecz that, if she involved lawyers, skittish chemical executives might bolt the partnership. Skrzecz walked out.

'Divide and conquer'

Feelings hardened. In February 1997, the grandmothers were enraged when the EPA refused to help them fight a City Council bill that benefited a South Baltimore medical-waste incinerator.

Regional environmentalists, wary of the partnership, pounced. The Virginia nonprofit Center for Health, Justice and the Environment published an article titled "Divide and Conquer: the EPA's Latest Strategy and What to Do About It," accusing the EPA of using the partnership to distract residents' attention from issues such as the incinerator.

"We were going to partnership meetings when we should have been preparing to fight the incinerator," says McGuigan.

By April 1997, the grandmothers were rebelling. McGuigan and Bonenberger, who served on the air quality committee, refused to sign off on the panel's report, stopping the release of a document that EPA staffers considered the partnership's most important accomplishment. On May 8, 1997, leading residents announced they were quitting the partnership. EPA officials, with the help of a local principal, organized a meeting to make peace May 27. The grandmothers walked out.

But the partnership remained politically important. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski appealed to McGuigan, urging the grandmothers to give the partnership another try. They did, but McGuigan says their hearts weren't in it.

'Something extra'

At air quality committee meetings, residents felt outgunned. Industry executives, impressed by what medical-waste incinerator President Richard Montgomery calls the EPA's "even-handedness," showed up in greater numbers. By last summer, the only residents attending were McGuigan and Bonenberger.

"Coming to these meetings was part of the industry people's jobs," says Bonenberger, treasurer of Concerned Citizens for a Better Brooklyn. "But for the community, it was something extra."

McGuigan and Bonenberger felt the committee's conclusions favored industry. Its draft report last spring discounted the concerns about the petrochemical industry and health that had led the grandmothers to support the partnership. The report blamed elevated levels of the carcinogen benzene on motor vehicle exhaust.

Residents were angered when the Chemical Industry Council, a local trade group, quoted approvingly from the report in an editorial in its May 1998 newsletter.

"I think people in industry liked what Hank was saying," says Becky Besson, a co-owner of Delta Chemical Corp. in Wagner's Point. "He had a tough job, and showed a world of patience in these meetings."

Residents didn't approve a final version of the report, and events overwhelmed the partnership. In April, Skrzecz died of cancer. She believed pollution caused her illness. Her neighbors began fighting for a buyout of Wagner's Point.

After an accident at FMC Corp. in Fairfield sent a cloud of unknown gas into the air in May, the grandmothers suggested that the EPA had been cooperating with companies instead of enforcing the law.

'Pointless exercise'

In mid-July, McGuigan, Bonenberger and Harris of the Sierra Club wrote to the EPA. The grandmothers were quitting.

"EPA, as the convener of this effort, must bear the responsibility for allowing this dissension to fester, never effectively leading the group to reach consensus on the overall purpose of the Partnership," says the letter. "We hope that you will carefully consider these comments and not just move on, finding another group of unsuspecting citizens to participate in such a pointless exercise."

Privately, participants on both sides say the partnership should die.

Topper and the Rev. Rick Andrews, a minister at Brooklyn United Methodist Church and a Brooklyn resident, say the partnership can be salvaged, but only if new community members join.

Chemical industry panel

The chemical industry is organizing an alternative to the partnership, the Community Advisory Panel, which began meeting last month. The grandmothers have expressed interest. McGuigan says she would rather talk to industry directly than through the EPA.

The EPA has labored to put the partnership in a positive light. Topper attended a Boston conference in August where the Baltimore project was described as "an established and committed partnership" that includes "community leaders" and environmental groups.

The EPA regional office recently rejected a grant proposal from the partnership. Reginald Harris, a Baltimore native who is environmental justice coordinator and senior toxicologist for the Philadelphia office, said at the latest partnership meeting: "Community involvement is the bottom line, and you don't have that."

The EPA's consultants at John Snow found it difficult to assess the government's work in Baltimore. The consultants sent dozens of questionnaires last year to participants asking for comments on the pilot project. They did not receive a response.

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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