EPA partnership is lesson in futility for communities

Residents, industry make little headway in faltering test case

January 18, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

When the federal government's vaunted South Baltimore program for community-directed environmental action met recently, 14 people showed up. Chemical industry executives. Federal environmental officials. City health and planning employees. And only one of the 16,000 residents in the program's target area: a warehouse worker from Curtis Bay.

Halfway through, he fell asleep.

One thing was clear: Very little community is left in the Community Environmental Partnership.

The pilot project, set up here by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Washington headquarters in 1996, had promised a new era for American regulation of polluters. Instead of top-down enforcement, the EPA would set up partnerships -- environmental empowerment zones -- with the government giving residents and local industries the information and motivation to clean up pollution.

Six Baltimore-area neighborhoods -- Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, Curtis Bay, Wagner's Point and Fairfield, plus part of Anne Arundel County's Brooklyn Park -- would establish the first partnership with local oil and chemical plants and show the country the way.

Almost three years later, a review of the partnership -- including interviews with 40 participants and the examination of hundreds of project documents -- shows a moribund program that has exhausted its government funding and survives on a small grant from the Johns Hopkins University. The partnership's failure serves as a case study of the difficulties facing the Clinton administration's targeted "empowerment"-style programs as they try to shoehorn resources into neighborhoods.

This spring, EPA headquarters dropped its sponsorship of the partnership, having spent $185,000 through a consulting firm, plus thousands on salaries. The project's stewardship rests with the EPA's Philadelphia office, where officials express doubts about its future.

"We in Baltimore were human test subjects for the EPA," says Terry Harris, 38, a partnership participant and Sierra Club member. "In the end, what we lab rats learned is that the EPA should enforce the law, instead of being in the community organizing business."

While acknowledging that the partnership failed here, EPA officials are repeating the experiment from St. Louis to Lawrence, Mass. The Baltimore partnership, they say, had some victories: It built momentum for a wildlife preserve, cleaned parks and gave residents data on water and air.

"Baltimore has been disappointing, but it's a lesson learned," says Dr. Lynn Goldman, an EPA assistant administrator.

Partnership members agree the EPA is not solely to blame. Several chemical industry leaders never embraced the idea. Residents were often more eager to fight. Maryland's turf-conscious environmental groups spread suspicion among South Baltimore residents about government goals.

But the EPA never set clear goals, according to an independent review of the project by the John Snow Institute, a Boston consulting firm. The EPA's chief liaison to the project, former Goucher College political scientist Hank Topper, clashed with the neighborhood's key leaders: five working-class grandmothers.

`Got along better before'

The EPA tried to enforce environmental laws and facilitate the partnership; but the two roles proved irreconcilable.

"They wanted industry and community to work together, but we got along better before the EPA showed up," says Ian Neuman, who runs Abbey Drum Co. and dropped out of the partnership early on.

When the federal government suggested a partnership in 1995, Doris McGuigan of Brooklyn and the other four grandmothers welcomed it. The EPA's senior managers, seeking to ingratiate themselves with a new Republican Congress, thought a Baltimore project exploring alternatives to traditional enforcement could create a model an hour's drive from Capitol Hill.

The grandmothers and EPA persuaded wary chemical executives to participate. On July 31, 1996, more than 160 people came to St. Athanasius Church in Curtis Bay for the partnership's first meeting.

Setting goals

Asked then about the partnership's goals, Topper said the EPA wanted the community and the industry to define their own. Residents set up committees: air quality, health effects, economic development, trash clean-up and housing, parks and water quality.

Many volunteers, including 6th District City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger and Curtis Bay neighborhood President Frank Lewis, were not contacted. The partnership's community clean-ups, intended to emphasize self-sufficiency, turned to city officials for shovels.

The partnership got a boost in March 1997 when the John Snow Institute opened the Community Environmental Partnership Office at 3606 S. Hanover St. The institute paid the $500-a-month rent and provided part-time staffing.

The office's conference room provided a meeting place for committees, but attendance dropped. Committees distributed short reports, but few recommendations were pursued. Frustrated with the pace, two committee chairs dropped out.

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