Survey results show public distrusts EPA

Editor’s note:  Published September 11, 2001 — that tragic day — in the Shoshone News-Press.

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(PHOTO CREDIT:  Google Images)

Preliminary results have now been released from the survey conducted this summer by the EPA regarding popular sentiment toward that agency’s would-be basin-wide cleanup plan.  The EPA’s recent newsletter — the Coeur d’Alene Basin News Briefs (Issue No. 24, dated August, 2001) — put the best face the agency could muster on the survey’s results.

This publication’s brief report led off by suggesting that the survey data showed that the Cd’A River Basin’s citizens placed high importance on the EPA’s research and planned remediation enterprise:  “The study and cleanup of mine waste contamination in the Coeur d’Alene Basin,” the text said, “is a *Very Important* issue to the survey participants.  52 percent of people said that the effects of the mine waste cleanup on human health was very important to them; 47 percent said the effects on the environment was very important and 35 percent said that the effects on the economy was very important to them” (p. 2).

These results were conveyed — with just a hint of pride, I thought — as if they implied that the general public lent credence and significance to the EPA’s overall enterprise here in the Basin.

But I doubt these data should be interpreted that way.  There is a crucial, but unnoted, ambiguity lurking in these responses.     

The survey did indeed ask “how important” each of three environmental issues was, but the questionnaire did not offer respondents the opportunity to express how or in what sense the issue in question was important.  For instance, I myself happen to think the “human health” issue is “very important” in the Basin — indeed, I go to several meetings a month trying to convey the SNRC Science Committee’s view on how the EPA/DEQ’s human health risk assessment is hampered with important flaws.

But the health issue is important to me not because I share and lend my support to the EPA’s view that there is an authentic health problem in the Basin but instead because I want the EPA and DEQ to re-think their position and offer us better science.  However, EPA’s presentation of these “how important” results simply glosses over that kind of crucial ambiguity.  They’ve spun their findings about human health, the eco-environment, and the economy so that our responses appear to offer the EPA’s mission substantial public support.  The key underlying ambiguity is simply ignored.

A similarly misleading EPA interpretive strategy is in evidence relating to how the newsletter’s article conveyed findings about the ostensibly high level of public participation in the EPA’s planning process.  It was reported about participation that 46% of the sample had “attended a public meeting,” that 37% had indicated participation in “a citizens group,” that 55% had “expressed their concern to EPA,” and, finally, that 34% had provided comments “on materials out for public review.”  What the EPA’s newsletter did not convey, however, was that high public participation was often occasioned by a prevailing sentiment of resistance and rejection of EPA plans for our area.

Once again, an important ambiguity in the questions themselves is glossed over, and EPA spin doctoring simply shaped the results in a manner that best served EPA’s own interests — i.e., showing that it’s mission is regarded as important and that the public is actively involved in the process.

Incidentally, EPA officials were and are fully aware of these important ambiguities in their survey’s questions.  In mid-July, when the SNRC Science Committee first saw the survey’s questionnaire, I called Mr. Bruce Engelbert of the EPA’s Superfund Community and Outreach Center, to suggest a number of criticisms of the survey’s sampling approach and its questionnaire — and I noted to him the very same ambiguities I’ve just described.  My conversation with Engelbert happened long before any results of the survey were available.  Yet the very same concerns I expressed to Mr. Engelbert in due course became the ostensible basis for the self-congratulatory and deceptive presentation offered by Region X in the August newsletter.

It goes without saying that this sort of sculpting of the survey’s results won’t get past the Silver Valley’s citizenry.  I’m quite sure that citizens who filled-in and returned this mail survey knew and appreciated how hard it was to answer its more ambiguous questions.  But it’s likely that these results are not aimed at the Silver Valley’s citizenry at all but instead have been crafted in order to help satisfy the EPA’s “public notice and comment” requirement — a duty the EPA must fulfill in order to consummate its plan to expand the original Superfund site here in the Basin.

The EPA’s August newsletter did not delve further into the survey’s other findings beyond noting that “Many people…indicated that they do not feel the agency understands or responds to their concerns” (p. 2).  But Region X (to their credit) was kind enough to supply the science committee with a detailed break-out of the survey’s full raw results.  The story these detailed findings tell is anything but pretty from an EPA perspective.  One series of survey questions about EPA performance offered response categories on a scale from from “very bad” (response 1) to “very good” (response 6) — in other words, the closer to score 1, the worse the public’s evaluation of the EPA.

For instance, regarding the “accuracy” of EPA communications, Silver Valley (Mullan to Kingston) respondents gave EPA poor grades.  The questionnaire asked:  “How do you rate the EPA at each of the following? Giving you accurate information”; more than half of those offering a response to this question rated the EPA either as either a “1” or a “2” — “very bad” got 34% of the responses and the neighboring category (i.e., only a little better than “very bad”) got 19%; only 8% rated the EPA as “very good.”

Silver Valley respondents offered a still-worse evaluation regarding the EPA’s success at “earning your trust.”  On this question, fully 52% of those offering a response checked “very bad” and an additional 12% checked the next category, for a total of 64% giving ratings 1 or 2; only 6% rated the agency as “very good.”  The agency scored only a little better regarding Silver Valley respondents’ views on how well the EPA was doing with respect to “understanding your concerns.”  Here, 56% checked responses 1 (“very bad”) or 2, and only 5% rated the EPA as “very good.”

There is obviously precious little good news in these findings for EPA or Region X.  Truth be told, however, the EPA’s survey is one again hampered by an inadequate approach to probability sampling and an inadequate response rate (When, oh when, will our friends at EPA learn the all-important value of rigorous sampling?).  Hence, the survey’s findings have no more than suggestive significance and cannot properly be used as the basis for descriptions or projections of population frequencies.  Despite hints that all was not well in these survey findings — hints appearing in both the newsletter’s article and, additionally, in a brief article in a Spokane newspaper on Aug. 31 — the main story deriving from these results lies in how the EPA tried to put the best face possible on them.

In papering over the ambiguity in their questions and in presenting these results in an upbeat key, the agency continues to pursue an ends-justify-means ethic — one that eschews offering a fully candid report in favor of building a case for doing what they wish to do.

Ironically, it’s just this kind of spin doctoring that has given EPA and Region X a palpable reputation for inaccuracy and untrustworthiness in its communications with our community. In the process, regrettably, we, the Silver Valley’s citizens, become treated more as subjects than citizens.  Based on this first EPA report, at least, that is what the survey chiefly shows. 

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One Response to Survey results show public distrusts EPA

  1. margo139 says:

    I still hope you will publish this in some book format in the future. Your review and critic of the issue is incredible.

    Like

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