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Superfund Technical Assistance Grants (TAGs)

Superfund Technical Assistance: Giving Communities an Informed Voice

Whenever people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.
- Thomas Jefferson


When the "government" at hand involves complex scientific and engineering matters?like those involved in cleaning up Superfund sites?making certain the affected citizenry are well informed is a key challenge to public participation. The Superfund program addresses that challenge by making technical assistance available to communities affected by abandoned hazardous waste sites. With such assistance, citizens have the opportunity to be both informed about and involved in Superfund site decision making.

Superfund Technical Assistance Grants (TAGs) were the first form of such assistance. Created by Congress as part of the 1986 amendments to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, commonly known as Superfund), the TAG program provides grant funds (generally, $50,000 initially) to eligible community groups. TAG recipients use their grants to procure the services of a technical advisor.

The latest technical assistance resource in the Superfund program is Technical Assistance Services for Communities (TASC). While TAGs provide technical assistance for communities affected by sites listed on the National Priorities List (NPL) or proposed for listing with a response action underway, the primary focus of the new TASC program is assisting communities affected by non-NPL sites. Communities are matched with technical advisors based on the type of assistance they need and their location.

Technical advisors help communities by interpreting and explaining technical reports, site conditions and EPA?s proposed cleanup proposals and decisions. By helping them to understand better what is going on at a site, a technical advisor can help community members participate in site cleanup decision making. EPA?s technical assistance programs also help get information gleaned from technical advisors out to the broader community through fact sheets, brochures, diagrams and other mechanisms.

The important benefit of working with communities throughout the site cleanup process is a common thread captured in interviews conducted by EPA as part of the Superfund program?s 25th Anniversary Oral History Project. Insights offered by John Quarles, a former EPA deputy administrator (10/19/73-1/20/77) and recently retired from the law firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, touch on the recognition that there is no benefit to an uninformed community. Speaking of his experience with the early days of the program, Mr. Quarles said that there was a realization that:

?having an ignorant local citizenry was not an advantage, and also?I think people found this hard to believe?but in many cases what happened was that in those cases where companies were conducting an active citizen communication program, they were finding support for reasonable approaches to the cleanup of a particular site.

Furthermore, the independent advice of a technical advisor gives communities the requisite knowledge to be true participants in the decision making process. During her interview, Lois Gibbs, a community leader at the Love Canal site in Niagara Falls, New York, in the late 1970s, and the founder and current executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, talked about how vital independent technical advice is for communities:

So when it [technical assistance] comes from somebody you trust, it is taken much warmer, much more sincere?I think the TAG grants have done phenomenal?You know it really has given people a voice, a voice in the science. They can sit at the table. They couldn?t sit at the table before, and talk to scientists. Most of the scientists wouldn?t talk to them, because they didn?t understand and they were afraid it would be taken out of context. So people had a representative at all the various tables, if they themselves could not go, as well as a translator and a hand holder.

The EPA has awarded more than 300 TAGs to communities since the first grant was awarded in 1988, and hopes to assists hundreds of communities through the TASC program. Thomas Jefferson offered his observation about informed citizenry several hundred years ago yet his wisdom resonates with the purpose of Superfund technical assistance, which helps ensure that citizens are well informed so that they have a role in the government of Superfund site decision making.

 

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