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Summary of Listening Session: Federal, State, and Local Environmental and Public Health Agencies

National Dialogue On Access to Environmental Information
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
March 20, 2008

Quick Summary: Federal, State, and Local Government Environmental and Public Health Agencies

The information needs of these government representatives are strongly influenced by the constituents they serve. Topics of importance are difficult to predict and can change rapidly and frequently.

These government officials are often intermediaries between EPA and the public. They stressed that EPA should provide clearly written, easy-to-understand information for non-English speakers and others with limited language skills.

For their own environmental needs, these government representatives frequently use information that is applicable to local issues and concerns, and need data to be available at detailed levels (e.g., to the infrastructure level).

Many of  these government representatives (and their constituents) were unaware of EPA information resources relevant to their jobs, suggesting a need for face-to-face marketing at the community level and “push” technologies.

A key component of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Dialogue on Access to Environmental Information is a series of facilitated listening sessions to elicit input on the types of environmental information that EPA’s stakeholders use, how they use it, and their preferred formats, channels, and venues for obtaining this information. This report summarizes the inputs from a National Dialogue Listening Session with staff from federal, state, and local government environmental and public health agencies from the Philadelphia area. An Appendix at the end of this document provides information about the participants, including their job titles, agencies, job descriptions, and how they use environmental information in their work.

Types of Environmental Information that Participants Use

Government representatives from the Philadelphia area shared experiences and perspectives regarding the types of environmental information they use most frequently, including attributes that tend to make data and information more or less useful.

Many of the government agency representatives are responsible for responding to constituent concerns. For example, one city environmental agency representative is the liaison between her agency and low income and minority communities. Other agency representatives reported that their jobs include responding to citizen requests for environmental information. Consequently, topics of interest can shift frequently, often corresponding to recent or “breaking” news stories. Topics of relevance are wide-ranging, but include local air and water quality, links between environmental problems and personal health, Superfund sites and other hazardous waste issues, changes in environmental regulations, and questions about consumer product safety. Specific topics of recent interest include: the new federal standard for ground-level ozone, mercury contamination in fish and other products, the impacts of human activities and behavior on global warming, and voluntary programs to save energy and reduce pollution.

With regard to important environmental information attributes and characteristics, participants focused mainly on concerns regarding data and information quality, particularly related to material obtained through the EPA Web site. They agree that they prefer EPA to fully verify its accuracy or provide detailed quality-related documentation. However, at the very least, participants would like EPA to add disclaimers to all data and provide summary information on limitations and appropriate uses.

Overall, this group of governmental representatives did not indicate that they used the EPA Web site extensively Although they understand that www.epa.gov contains a vast amount of information, they are not familiar with the content or features contained in the site. For example, one participant suggested that EPA provide a series of educational Web sites for students, unaware that such a domain already exists. Although it has a prominent Web presence, only one participant was aware of EPA’s Sunwise program. Another participant noted that while Geographic Information System (GIS) data and maps are useful, he accesses soil maps and EPA’s EnviroMapperthrough a Pennsylvania State University Web site. Since EnviroMapper does not provide all the data layers he needs (e.g., down to the infrastructure – such as the street – level), he prefers to use state and regional maps, such as New Jersey’s i-Map.

Uses of Environmental and Public Heath Information

Not surprisingly, EPA’s governmental stakeholders have many uses for environmental and public health information. Perhaps most importantly, participants need environmental and public health information in order to answer questions from the constituents they serve. One frequently cited example is that doctors request information about the health effects of environmental problems – obstetricians concerned about mercury levels in fish, for example, want to know how much fish their pregnant patients can eat and whether fish oil is a safe alternative to fish.

As another example, one participant who works on community issues has been helping residents determine how to establish a summer recreation program at a playground that has been closed for years due to its proximity to a site contaminated by asbestos. This requires her to collaborate with numerous organizations and deal with a combination of economic, social, environmental, and public health issues. As outlined below, this constituent-focused case research role has several implications with regard to the format for environmental and public health information.

Formats for Environmental and Public Health Information

"I need to have fact sheets, FAQs, and other clearly written, basic environmental information both to provide to the public and to pull together information for my supervisors, who need to be briefed about a particular topic."

Do governmental representatives prefer particular formats in which to receive environmental data and information? Participants point out that the question of format is complicated by the fact that EPA serves two very different constituencies: lay people and technical professionals. This makes it difficult to adopt a “one-size fits all” format for environmental information, and participants noted that EPA should provide separate information adapted for different audiences.

Although they do not articulate specific format preferences, participants emphasize a need for information to help them respond to constituent issues and queries. They also desire information that they can give directly to their constituents. Such information needs to be simple since their constituents do not always have Internet access, have limited technical capabilities, and/or do not speak English. These information needs include:

The government representatives provided other suggestions for receiving more detailed information:

These representatives indicated that they like interactive Web sites and acknowledged that EPA has many sites with interactive features. They mentioned the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the National Institutes of Health HASDAT database as good examples of interactive sites. Participants also like Web-based training sites, where they can learn about a specific topic or listen to conference speakers. The EPA Watershed Academy was mentioned as a good example, as it enables users to walk through the regulation process at their own pace and save slides in the form of fact sheets.

Several participants indicated that EPA Web pages are sometimes too busy – they are crammed with too much information, too many technical terms and obscure acronyms, and are difficult to navigate. One participant cited ECHO (for finding data on water systems) as a site that is difficult to use; the same individual mentioned the CERCLA site as an example of a helpful tool.

Channels and Venues for Delivery of Environmental and Public Health Information

A major objective of EPA’s National Dialogue for Access to Environmental Information is to gather input on factors that affect how stakeholders seek and obtain information. Participants in the governmental session made it clear that their constituents are largely unaware of the extent and variety of EPA’s information holdings. For example, several participants noted that schools in their regions need access to environmental data, but don’t know where to look for it. Participants suggested that EPA needs to increase awareness of its information products, perhaps by sending individuals into communities and adopting a face-to-face approach to outreach and marketing. Participants also emphasize the value of accessing environmental information through professional networking, and encourage EPA to support opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction.

"The thing about the Internet is that people have to go search for information – it is not readily presented to them."

Participants at this listening session indicated that the communities they serve (e.g., schools, medical patients and doctors, the Boy Scouts) tend to obtain environmental information through traditional, relatively passive means (e.g., newspapers, friends, family, TV, and radio) rather than conducting active searches such as through Internet search engines. Other participants emphasized that environmental information for community members should be directly disseminated by means of familiar, trusted local information and communication venues such schools, hospitals, personal health care providers, businesses, and community-focused newspapers and radio stations. It was suggested that EPA could consider partnering with organizations such as these, with the Agency providing content and the partner providing input on customer needs and the means of distribution. In this context, participants stressed that EPA must be sensitive to cultural and linguistic issues.

When asked about partners or intermediaries they use to disseminate information, some of the participants expressed concern about using EPA. One participant suggested that EPA puts too much “spin” on environmental issues, mentioning recent ozone regulations as an example. Another pointed out that EPA has a credibility problem, as evidenced in part by his observation that the media rarely interview EPA officials for their stories on environmental issues. Participants mentioned community level non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community development corporations, churches, and professional societies as examples of highly credible partners.

Participants in this session seem not to have embraced cutting edge information technologies such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, podcasts, blogs, or Wikis. However, they are interested in these technologies – principally as a means for staying abreast of evolving issues and information needs at the community level.

Participant Summary

Group II: Government Environmental and Public Health Agencies

The information in the following table, compiled from participant sign-in sheets, summarizes key data about the participants. As shown, the eight participants represent a range of state, regional, and local environmental and public health agencies. They are planners, scientists, community liaisons, engineers, and managers.

Summary of Participants’ Agencies and Jobs
Agency Name Job Title Job Description
Environmental Agencies
Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) Transportation Planner Conducts long-range planning of regional air quality programs, and public outreach and education on air quality.
Montgomery County, PA, Planning Commission Environmental Planner Conducts county planning, GIS analyses, municipal reviews.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) Community Liaison Acts as a liaison between the community and government agencies, point of contact for low income/minority communities in permitting and public involvement, and advisor for Energy Harvest grants.
Delaware County Office of Housing and Community Development Senior Community Development Specialist Conducts environmental reviews for federally funded projects [e.g., Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), HOME Investment Partnership Program, Economic Development Initiatives (EDI)].
Public Health Agencies
New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services (NJDHSHS) Research Scientist Conducts applied research to support environmental health policy decisions. chairs various stakeholder groups, and consults with other scientists, agencies, the public, advocacy groups, and legislators.
Philadelphia Department of Public Health Environmental Health Program Manager Manages environmental engineering programs, including solid waste and hazardous waste issues.
Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Air Management Services Engineering Supervisor Supervises a unit that supports Philadelphia’s local air pollution control agency, responds to citizen inquiries, and creates maps.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) / Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) Environmental Health Scientist Reviews environmental sampling data and determines potential health threats.

Types of Environmental Information

The government environmental and public health agency participants provided the following information about the types of environmental information they use:

Uses of Environmental Information

The government agency representatives at the Philadelphia listening session indicated that they use environmental information in the following ways:

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