As in many older industrial regions of modest incomes, residents of the Pine River watershed in Michigan have experienced powerlessness periodically, powerlessness in the face of resource exhaustion, environmental contamination, corporate restructuring, and global economic trends. Perhaps the most extreme proof of this powerlessness is the willingness of many residents of the region to accept as inevitable the health problems which they believe grow from the contamination to which they have been repeatedly exposed. Velsicol Chemical's St. Louis plant and its predecessor, Michigan Chemical, dumped thousands of tons of DDT wastes into the Pine River and other places near St. Louis. Beginning around 1970, the company also exposed the residents and workers to fire retardants (polybrominated biphenyls - PBB) as well as low level radioactive wastes. In 1973, the company accidentally shipped large quantities of PBB to cattle feed supply facilities, contaminating the regional food chain. It is estimated that eight million people consumed some of contaminated dairy products.
As a consequence of company emissions, St. Louis has two active Superfund sites, one de-listed but still contaminated additional site, and a river that had the highest levels of DDT ever documented in the U.S. (up to 44,000 ppm). Many residents and some health researchers believe the residents of the region have higher than expected levels of certain cancers, birth defects, and learning disabilities.
Beginning in late 1997, well-attended public meetings regarding the regions contamination revealed widely shared resentment at previous decisions of the U.S. EPA and the state of Michigan regarding local hazards. This shared sense of indignation and frustration empowered the community in 1997 to form, under EPA regulations (OSWERD Directive 9230.0-28), the CAG, named the Pine River Superfund Citizens Task Force. For over ten years the Task Force has met monthly with state and federal environmental and health officials to secure appropriate environmental and health responses to the contamination and exposures.
The Task Force has become a national model for establishing a forum linking government experts and concerned citizens, with much local knowledge, to secure appropriate environmental-health policy responses. The Task Force has modeled a partnership with higher education, by winning the support of Alma College for facilities, research, and expertise. The College and Task Force have partnered in soliciting grants, hosting public meetings and two health conferences. The College's Public Affairs Institute and Center for Responsible Leadership have worked together on the Eugene Kenaga DDT conference.
The Task Force is guided by a theory that assumes citizen involvement in technical decision making is essential in a democracy. The Task Force believes that such community groups can improve the effectiveness of any technical work, research about risks, and decisions about remediation. A failed remediation of the Velsicol site in the 1980s, done with conscious exclusion of the public by officials, seems to be proof of the validity of the Task Force's assumptions regarding citizen involvement. The Task Force and College are determined not to allow similar mistakes to occur today.
Specifically, the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force assumes the findings of several studies about citizen involvement in highly technical issues to be true, including:
1. Special information and data are available to concerned citizens that are unknown to outside experts. Local knowledge can provide hints on unknown routes of exposure and health effects and can guide inquiries into specific problems.
2. Recruitment for participation in remediation and acceptance of decisions are increased by community involvement.
3. Community involvement can identify special objectives and approaches which can therefore reduce costs.
4. Involved citizens can take control of key remediation functions, including advising experts conducting scientific research related to exposure and remediation. This can increase transparency of scientific decision making, the possibility of including diverse perspectives, and through independent commentary on research, enhance objectivity.
The Task Force has a model of cooperation. A precondition is that the participants in the Task Force and experts from government and the professional health community have equal rights. The requirement for successful cooperation is to draw up binding rules for communication, ways of decision making, and allocation of responsibilities. The citizens should preside over meetings and keep the minutes, which document the statements of all participants, including the public officials, scientists, and professionals.
Citizen members of the Task Force and the elected chairperson are inside the circle. Outside the circle are the key interests and specialists potentially needed by the citizens to understand risks, policy options, and public agency responsibility and capacity.
•The members and leaders of the Task Force must seek to identify and control any conflict of interest. The Task Force, open to all area residents, will represent the interests of exposed populations.
•Federal, state, and local administrators may be called-upon to support the community, as citizens determine their needs. Obviously federal and state officials also have responsibility to the wider state and national community to carry out the laws that govern their agencies.
•The scientific researchers may be called upon by citizens to supply data and take the lead in their interpretation. Scientists, however, must know they work for the community. Residents must not be made "guinea pigs" for scientific research. Also, science may guide policy, but the community has the right to determine the allocation of limited resources. The Task Force and College maintain that science can be 'a fourth power' besides political administration, industry, and community members. However, too often science has been seen in communities, such as in this community, as an ally either of industry or the government administrators, intimidating the citizens. The Task Force and College have pioneered having scientists collaborate with a non-expert community and seek answers to complex health and environmental questions. The role they have asked experts to assume represents a major challenge for science and many scientists.
•Representatives of local institutions - especially Alma College - but also including churches, unions, civic and fraternal organizations, and environmental groups provide an institutional base for the Task Force, which helps it, as any community group, survive individual membership changes.
•Industry leaders have been welcomed members of the Task Force, especially those, such as Eugene Kenaga, who are committed to development of an economy that is sustainable and does not harm the public's health.
•Because the primary concern of Task Force members is to assure that human health, especially of our children and future generations, is protected. The Task Force has sought the help of the region's medical and public health professionals, both to evaluate exposures and to plan clinical responses.
The Task Force already has established a process for informing residents about the progress of the Pine River remediation. The Task Force will continue and enhance existing mechanisms for documenting progress of this research for the community. The Task Force has established this website, has regularly scheduled monthly meetings at 7:00 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month at St. Louis City Hall, has used Public Access TV and the local media to reach the wider public, and done outreach in the public schools and at Alma College.
Donations and memberships are welcomed. Membership is $5 per year for an individual or family and $25 for institutions per year.