Let's Respect the Public With More Information

We need a lot more environmental information to begin to address the lack of public understanding of environmental harms.

This may seem obvious, but it isn’t. At a meeting a few years ago, I was shocked to find the head of a state water agency opposed to an effort to provide the public with more information on sewage overflows. His argument was that he didn’t want to scare the public, and that the public wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand the information.

About our families swimming in sewage, I thought?

Sewage overflows happen much more frequently than they should. In the Clean Water Act of 1972, Congress set a goal for our waters to be fishable and swimmable by 1983. Yet today, fewer than one half of our waters have even been assessed. Of those, only about half meet their designated uses. And for most of those, the designated use is something less than fishable and swimmable.

Take our beaches, for example. In 2007, the NRDC released the results of our annual water quality survey. The results were startling. In 2006, pollution caused a record number of beach closings nationwide. Closing and advisory days topped 25,000 – more than had ever been recorded in the survey’s 17-year history. The public needs to know about this. And yet, agencies are wary of releasing information that would hold them responsible.

In one EPA negotiated undertaking I was involved with, we were discussing the possibility of electronic filing of permit applications, permits, and monitoring data. Many dischargers were first supportive – after all, it would save them time and money. But once they realized that if electronically filed it would be easily accessible, they changed their minds. They knew that publicly available information leads to more awareness, more attention, and more enforcement. They were not sure that was good.

In my opinion, this is backwards. If there is a concern about the reaction, the answer is to provide the public with more, or better, information, not less. We should have more respect for the public.

To solve this problem, we need to begin by providing the public with more information – much more information than they currently have. But we also need to provide them with better information. It’s not just about quantity, but quality. The information should be about the full range of effects – health, environmental, cultural – and not just about the associated costs.

And we need to make the information available. The internet is a truly terrific opportunity for this (if you’re reading this blog, I hope you’ll agree). Environmental information should all be up on the web so anyone can find out about the permit (or lack of a permit) for the factory or whatever is down the street from one of their kids’ schools.

This is one of NRDC’s goals. We believe that an informed citizenry is an active citizenry – one more likely to hold the federal government to its promise of providing clean water for our families, and for our kids.