Friday, January 14, 2011

environmental justice and public participation

There's a new issue of Environmental Justice out that focuses on public participation. In it, there's an article by Neenah Estrella-Luna that analyzes the law structuring public participation in environmental review in Massachusetts. It's a nice piece, but doesn't go far enough (although the articles in this journal are quite short, so don't really allow the type of incisive, nuanced analysis required [IMO] for EJ work).

The article focuses on public participation in environmental permitting. The permitting decision is usually binary - either the facility gets permitted or it does not. She's specifically interested in the tradeoff between the interests of the permit applicant (or proponent) and the public-at-large. Who is more influential on the final decision?

But what is the appropriate way to measure influence when something either happens or it does not? It seems like the discussion of public participation in EJ misses this point - what would we judge as good public participation? How do we operationalize influence when a decision is binary? How many facilities should be permitted, and how many not for it to be considered just? Where does the facility go if not in the EJ community? Will it simply go to a rich neighborhood? to China? is either just?

Rather than arguing about individual permitting decisions, EJ should embrace its criticism of consumer capitalism and take it to its logical conclusions (a la Bedford). Seen in this light, the idea that harmful facilities should be placed in any community is unjust and we begin to see the nature of production and consumption as problematic. Environmental injustice is a symptom, the cure is not amelioration but something much more radical.


Anonymous said...

Estrella-Luna did a simple "compare and contrast" scenario which compared public participation regarding two power plant proposals in the Massachusetts towns of Chelsea and Russell. She was roughly affiliated with the "effective" opposition to Chelsea plant, and lo and behold, they became the good guys who "won." In contrast, according to Estrella-Luna the groups opposing the Russell Biomass plant "didn’t demonstrate understanding of the proposed projects, and as a result made outrageous claims and assertions that made them look uninformed." Along with many other folks, Estrella-Luna, was under the assumption that the Russell Biomass plant would surely be built, thus vindicating her thesis.

The bottom line is that Estrella-Luna was simply looking for a ripe and topic with an easy format for her doctoral thesis.

The irony is that history has proven her wrong.

automobilious said...

This is a pretty scathing critique. Just to be clear, you're saying that E-L expected the Russell plant to be built in spite of public opposition and she had attributed this to ineffective opposition?

But in the end the Russel plant was not built?

And the Chelsea plant ended up going forward despite an articulate public?

Anonymous said...

In 2009 Russell Biomass was well along in the permitting process, despite legitimate concerns from the opposition. Until then, the “powers that be” accepted even the thinnest of responses from the proponent. At one point, it appeared to come down to an issue regarding truck traffic, and through a fortuitous purchase of land, Russell Biomass was readying an alternative route.

Estrella-Luna wrote “The Russell case shows that if a proponent is open to cooperating with the locality and the statewide permitting agencies, it can earn and maintain the empathy needed to overcome widespread opposition.”

She added “In the end, the local opposition looked more like angry NIMBYs than concerned residents raising legitimate issues.”

Unreal... there are countless similar quotes along the same lines. In a word, "bias."

The irony is that many of the issues raised by the opponents, such as carbon neutrality, forest reserves, etc. ended up becoming the framework for the subsequent Manomet study.

I guess the difference is that these concerns were not voiced by people who she terms were "professional stakeholders."

Early on, these issues were being raised on an online forum called "e-democracy." Look it up and see for yourself. The irony is that Etrella-Luna appears to have scoured these forums - and found nothing to write home about, save for two quotes in her paper.

Here is an "E-L" quote from a Northeastern publication:

"I hit a gold mine when I found an online discussion board discussing the power plant proposal in one of my case communities."

Also from the same document:

Russell "failed to have influence mainly because they were not effective participants. In fact, they were quite belligerent and treated the environmental review process as a political process rather than the technical-legal process that it really is."

IMHO, answers found in viewing codified data through the prism of "string theory" or "Archon Fung’s framework" lack true perspective. A clearer picture is found in the more mundane concepts regarding money and politics.

Anonymous said...


E-demo is down is guess. Here is a portion of an article from a local paper that should sum things up. It was published on Friday, June 11, 2010 in the Westfield Evening News. It was written by staff writer Dave Canton.

WESTFIELD — A long-awaited study of the effects of wood-burning power plants is forcing state officials to re-evaluate years of policy that called for state investment and encouragement of the biomass industry.
The state Department of Energy Resources-commissioned Manomet Study, released Thursday, found burning biomass for power generation to be far dirtier in the short term than all fossil fuel sources, including coal.
The state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Ian Bowles, long a booster of biomass development, Thursday said the state will now have to rethink its support.

“… Now that we know that electricity from biomass harvested from New England forests is not ‘carbon neutral’ in a timeframe that makes sense given our legal mandate to cut greenhouse gasses, we need to re-evaluate our incentives for biomass,” Bowles said in a statement.

Carbon dioxide, a gas released from combustion, is considered a “greenhouse gas,” a major contributor to global warming .
The study, conducted by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in Brunswick, Maine, found that contrary to the long-held belief that burning wood on an industrial scale could be considered “carbon neutral,” meaning that the carbon released from burning wood was equal to the carbon that standing trees sequestered, is not truly the case, the study found, at least not within a short-term time frame.
The study indicates it would in some cases take up to 90 years of tree growing to equal the nearly instant release of carbon from burning wood.
Under the Global Warming Solutions Act, the commonwealth is mandated to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions — carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas — by 80 percent by the year 2050. Given the timeframe indicated by the Manomet Study, the state would vastly increase its carbon releases until long after the 2050 deadline.

Jana Chicoine, one of the founders of Concerned Citizens of Russell, a local grassroots group that formed to oppose Russell Biomass LLC’s proposal to build a 50-megawatt power plant in Russell, said this morning that she felt vindicated by the study’s results.
“Looking at the newspaper headlines this morning is like reading our press releases for the past five years,” she said. “We have been making this case for the past five years.”

Chicoine credits Montgomery engineer Dr. Ellen Moyer with making the first comparisons between biomass and coal burning, and finding coal to be cleaner in carbon releases than wood.
Chicoine said Moyer’s work indicated that in some cases the proposed Russell Biomass plant would emit one and a half times the carbon as the dirtiest coal burning plants in the state.
But, Chicoine said, the recent study does not preclude Russell Biomass LLC from building its plant in Russell and using fuels such as construction and demolition (C&D) debris or solid waste, trash, as a fuel source. Both fuels are reported to release toxins into the atmosphere upon burning. Neither C&D nor trash requires state sanctioned renewable energy credits to make a profit.

Anonymous said...

And here below, for the first time on academic polemic, is the rest of the article!

Russell Biomass’s original business plan was to burn C&D. It changed its approach, promising to burn nothing but “clean wood” in its plant after growing local protest to the use of C&D. That promise came at the last public hearing in 2005.
Meg Sheehan, Environmental attorney and chairwoman of the state-wide Stop Spewing Carbon Campaign said the Manomet Study asked the wrong questions.
“We still believe it is wrong to ask how many trees can be burned. That assumes that the forests should be used for bioenergy at all,” she said. “We feel burning the forests for any reason has unacceptable health risks. We appreciate the governor’s leadership in calling for this study, but it ignored one of the most important aspects of the issue, and that is the public health impacts and the public health costs of the air pollution caused.”
Sheehan said Stop Spewing Carbon is behind a ballot initiative to stop industrial-scale incineration of carbon-laden materials.
The state Department of Energy Resources will be holding a series of public hearings through July to review the Manomet Study and consider policy implications, working toward “potential changes to the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard and other policy options,” a release from the DOER said.
Calls to Russell Biomass LLC for comment on the Manomet Study were not returned by press time.
Calls to Secretary Bowles’ office seeking comment on the other fuel sources, such as Construction and Demolition debris (C&D) and solid waste incineration for power generation were not returned by press time.
While C&D and solid waste may not be applicable for renewable energy credits under the state’s renewable Energy Standard Portfolio, each releases carbon into the atmosphere. In the case of construction and demolition debris, made up primarily of wood, incineration would presumably release the same amount of carbon as forest-based woods.

N.starluna said...

I am the author in question. I am very excited to see others reading and discussing this work. I do agree that measuring influence is no easy task, and the approach that I used in this study may not be appropriate in other studies. I also agree that doing any kind of analysis of social justice issues requires nuance and understanding.

To answer the two questions you put forth, the Russell plant may not be built primarily because the laws that would have made it profitable are changing. The developers were relying on being able to get renewable energy credits for using biomass but it looks like the state may be changing the definition of eligible activities that would exclude wood burning plants. The opponents were actually quite successful in getting the Dept. of Public Utilities to come around to their view of the local permitting process but, in my study, they were not successful with the environmental regulators.

The proposal for the power plant in Chelsea was withdrawn by the developed because the community was able to convince the regulators that the plant would not meet the criteria for a Chapter 91 license. The developer was also on the brink of losing support for another project (Cape Wind) from the environmental community because of the Chelsea proposal.

I would like to clarify a few things. First, I did not focus on environmental permitting but on the environmental review process. This is a key distinction in Massachusetts because the environmental review process is the primary locus of public participation and is intended to contribute to the permit decision. But permit decisions are actually a separate process from the one I studied. So, to be clear, I was not studying the process by which a permit decision is made, but the process in which information is gathered that is supposed to contribute to the permit decision.

Second, the goal of the study was to investigate how law and policy structures interactions between participants and decision-makers and, as a consequence, shapes the potential influence those participants may have. So, the question was not simply who has influence, but how legal structures shape who has influence. This is part of work I am doing to develop a theory influence in bureaucratic decision-making.

Finally, I suspect anonymous is an individual who attempted to contact me after my PhD dissertation was published (this article is a small part of dissertation work). The emailer quite angrily disagreed with the interpretation of the content analysis of the published materials and interviews as it relates to Russel's opposition. The thing about this kind of work (and nicely illustrated here) is that you can't control how people interpret your works or your ideas once you've made them public. People will interpret them through their own lenses. As a primarily qualitative researcher, I acknowledge and respect that.

I would suggest that those interested in the full study or how I came to the conclusions around the behavior of the opposition to the biomass plant in Russell and its relationship to their lack of influence in the environmental review process, you can access it for free here: Fair warning: this is a PhD dissertation, which means its a book (~300 pages), and there is a fair amount of abstract theory involved in this work.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth even gets it shoes tied.

Despite the desperate attempts by vested interests and their apologists to keep the biomass lie alive, the big tree-burning biomass "greenwash" is finally being exposed for the scam it always was.

Apologies will never come from those like Estrella-Luna who were more than happy to jump on the money and faux green bandwagon which attempted to run over anyone who dared to bring up the inconvenient truths and scientific facts so clearly in contrast to the flimsy propaganda from biomass developers, and taken for fact by uninterested "regulators" (nod, nod, wink, wink).

Biomass is/was just another big fat lie meant to implement the all too familiar trickle-up economic plan of transferring yet more wealth from the rest of us, to those who already have too much, and still want more.

In this case to the biomass developers and their investors who stood to make literally billions from taxpayer subsidies to make further degrade our forests, air quality and climate stability were somehow portrayed by Estrella-Luna as the "good guys" and the citizens without resources fighting with bare hands against an armed opponent, for something more importnat than money, such as a habitable planet for our children, were somehow the problem according to Estrella-Luna.

For a Biomess Reality Check:

Anonymous said...


While I find it fascinating that you could stop by and "clarify" things, your very first elucidation states:

"First, I did not focus on environmental permitting but on the environmental review process."

How can you square this with information found in Appendix C of you dissertation?

Your "Recruiting Phone Script" found in Appendix C starts off with:

"Hi, my name is Neenah Estrella-Luna. I am a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University. I am conducting a study of the environmental permitting process in Massachusetts and…"

Your "Recruiting Email Template" reads as follows:

"Dear (Name of Potential Participant),

My name is Neenah Estrella-Luna. I am a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University. I am conducting a study of the environmental permitting process in Massachusetts and am currently…"

How many folks from the biomass plant "opposition" did you actually contact?

As I'm sure memories have faded a bit in the ensuing years, maybe you could simply round it off to the nearest 100.

Anonymous said...

The review was in many respects a "political process."

As a matter of public record, Russell Biomass poured over $200,000 into lobbying efforts between 2006 and 2009.