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Environment: truth, outrage, and the American way.

Environment: Truth, Outrage, and the American Way

What makes a risk dangerous? Who should take responsibility? Associations test new answers.

Quality information--good science--is a powerful prop. One of the marvelous things about democracy, as Peter M. Sandman, director of the Environmental Communication Research Program at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, might say, is that it allows us all to believe in the truth and still disagree with each other. "The conflict of freely expressed ideas is best," he says of our political system.

Associations and industry are spending billions of dollars looking for truth and trying to agree--or at least comply--with the government. New equipment and expanded capacity to accommodate recycling at paper mills will cost about $5 billion from 1988 to 1995, estimates Red Cavaney, president of the American Paper Institute, New York City.

And when the Environmental Protection Agency's dioxin study found traces of the chemical in paper mills, API spent millions more on a joint study with EPA to first locate the source of dioxin and then develop ways to reduce its formation. It cost paper mills close to $1 billion to achieve industrywide "nondetects." "We're very pleased," Cavaney says. "EPA did a risk assessment this spring and gave us a clean bill of health."

Is that a lot of money? "The system for teasing apart and assessing the connections between risk and cost is called politics," Sandman remarks. Sandman also teaches risk communication, a young offspring of risk assessment and psychology, to trade groups like the Chemical Manufacturers Association and the American Petroleum Institute, both in Washington, D.C.

"Experts shouldn't say how much we should spend," Sandman continues, playing devil's advocate. "You can't say how much a life is worth, because it depends on how you're going to die. It's worse to die from a nuclear accident."

At the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), Washington, D.C., Vice President of Resources and Environment H. Richard Seibert holds more firmly to the scientific view. "We have a set of problems and limited resources. We have to rank the problems, set priorities based on the risk to human health and so on," he says. "Instead, we have been addressing them based on emotion, public relations, and media coverage."

Seibert cites last year's acid rain debate. "Congress commissioned a 10-year study that cost millions of dollars, yet they passed legislation before the study came out. And the study says acid rain is a problem but not to human health. It's not a crisis; the impact of acid rain will be minimal."

Another risk communication specialist, Director of Environmental Activities Anne Giesecke at the American Bakers Association, Washington, D.C., says, "Science isn't right or wrong. It has to do with the hierarchy of academics who say something's right, who has the highest status."

So who's responsible?

"Environmental policy works if responsibility accrues to somebody," says Jared O. Blum, president of the Polyisocyanurate Insulation Manufacturers Association, Washington, D.C. "Clearly that's those in control, the manufacturers. It's not good enough to look at the smokestack; we have to ask what we're putting into the product."

If responsibility is construed as liability, then NAM disagrees. "Last year's bill on environmental crimes was in response to the Exxon Valdez [accident] because they felt there wasn't enough blood taken out of the company," says Seibert. "The bill would take 32 pieces of environmental legislation and make breaking them a felony. That's ludicrous. Congress historically makes the punishment fit the crime. The legislation is so loosely drawn it could almost apply to anyone," Seibert complains. "At a time when we're trying to get the best and the brightest to be environmental managers, this will scare them away because of the personal risk."

Others see liability as an appropriate agent of change. At Defenders of Wildlife, Washington, D.C., John M. Fitzgerald, counsel for wildlife policy, notes that the natural resource damage provision of the superfund act "makes companies pay to restore the environment. Along with right-to-know and other legislation, that leaves them vulnerable to substantial losses and more than anything is making companies reform.

"It's helpful that Congress is beginning to talk about holding individual executives and employees responsible when the corporation is criminally responsible, as seems to be happening in the Exxon case," Fitzgerald adds.

Risking definition

The argument Fitzgerald and Seibert set up is easily reduced to a moral battle: How can we price life? What will be the cost if we don't? The big picture of victory in this fight, as with other democratic quarrels over truth, is still fuzzy.

Curiously, the picture grows fuzzier the more finely tuned are the instruments of examination. "As measuring devices become more precise and computers more sophisticated, the line blurs between risk assessment and risk management," says API's Cavaney. Assessment he defines as "calculating a risk based on potency and exposure"; risk management "is deciding what to do about it.

"We had the luxury in the last decade to fund most [environmental] activities," Cavaney goes on. "As the line blurs, increasingly we find something that needs to be corrected; everyone begins to get concerned about money well-spent."

Losing the distinction between identifying the statistical probability of harm and working to prevent that harm, Cavaney contends, means people think, "If there is a risk, it should be reduced to zero. That's an extreme reaction, usually on the part of advocacy groups. When you see a problem in isolation, in the abstract, it's hard to argue against [solving it]. But there's not enough money to fix everything down to zero."

"Risk," concurs Lewis Freeman, vice president of government affairs at the Society of the Plastics Industry, Washington, D.C., "can be blown out of proportion. The challenge for industry is to put it in perspective. It's hard to do that for the public: Science is not easy to sell in 30-second sound bites."

Communicating risk

It is hard, confirms environmental communication specialist Sandman. But aside from technical tongue-twisters and mathematical mysteries, industry is struggling with a much more gnarly impediment: public fear and anger.

"Risk communication at first was figuring out how to scare people, how to alert an apathetic public of possible risk. A parallel set of skills has emerged to calm people down when they're excessively alarmed." Sandman's ideas about rising public alarm and the consequent birth of a language to address it are hard on industry. Notably, he says it's usually some chemical, oil, flooring, or other producer that hires him to train and then tells its association, "We've got to get this message to everyone."

Sandman maps the growth of outrage, hazard, and industry response. "The last decades of nukes and chemicals created a set of terrifying risks, all badly managed," he says. People could no longer ignore the danger, "so they freaked out. There was also a lot of money at stake: How to calm people down got sexier than how to alarm them not because it was more important but because very powerful interests were getting [hurt] by excessive public alarm. Agencies like EPA discovered a public taking the bit in its teeth, insisting that institutions be responsible."

Events of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s fueled the outrage. Sandman cites community-right-to-know legislation (Title III of the Superfund Amendment and Reauthorization Act of 1986), the Bhopal accident, and a distrust of institutions born during Vietnam and Watergate.

In November 1990, Sandman addressed the members of the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), a group he singles out as exemplary for creating Responsible Care, a member program. He traced a history of industry risk communication, and summed up, "The goal of the stonewall period was to keep your neighbors out of your business. The goal of the missionary period was to explain to your neighbors why they were wrong and you were right. The goal of the dialogue period is to understand and respond to the ways in which your neighbors have been right all along, and your industry wrong. The hope is that when the chemical industry responds more appropriately to public outrage, the outrage will be reduced and will no longer cloud people's understanding of the hazard."

Change and responsibility

Change, Sandman emphasizes, is agonizing. "Industry's feeling of betrayal is very forgivable." He also acknowledges that institutions have a structural disadvantage. "It's hard for DuPont to express compassion. What are they going to do, create a compassion department?" To CMA he remarked, "Like individuals, institutions change in stages, not all at once. Policies change before practices, and practices change before attitudes."

Victory, too, seems likely to come in stages as the public, industry, and government shake out a definition that all can live with. So who is responsible?

Sandman says, "The government is responsible to keep the public from harm, but environmental regulation is so complex and contradictory it's not possible to obey or enforce." At Defenders of Wildlife, Fitzgerald says, "The greater is our power in each position, the greater is our responsibility," from the individual voter to the President.

And at the American Bakers Association, Anne Giesecke has just about finished unpacking boxes in her new office. She's fresh from EPA's Office of Toxic Substances, come to head up ABA's new environmental activities department. "Working in the government meant talking about pollution prevention. I thought, okay, how does it play in the real world? The action is here. It's not government or environmental groups that are going to reduce pollution: It's industry."

Kristin Staroba is senior editor of Association Management.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; part 2
Author:Staroba, Kristin
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Environment: conflict, change, and the balance of interests.
Next Article:Two-mission man.

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