Five years ago, the best minds in Colorado sat down with Governor Roy Romer and brainstormed a way to make environmental cleanups faster and cheaper. At least that was the idea. Present were leaders from industries, higher education, regulatory agencies and the environmental movement. The result of the one-day think tank was the Colorado Center for Environmental Management (CCEM), a nonprofit organization meant to bring together parties concerned with environmental cleanups, inspire them to put aside their adversarial relationships and collaborate on possible solutions.

Today, however, all CCEM seems to have proven is that many of those people probably shouldn't be in the same room together.

Since 1991 the organization has pursued its somewhat amorphous goal of "linking business, education, citizens and government for a better environment." But that noble-sounding mission foundered even before the organization opened its doors, when local environmentalists objected to the involvement of corporations such as the Coors Brewing Company and Martin Marietta, which had records as environmental lawbreakers. The few public-interest groups initially involved soon bailed out, taking with them much of CCEM's credibility--and, perhaps, its sense of direction. Today, says one former boardmember, the center remains "an organization in search of a mission." But it hasn't gone away.

The center, which owes its continued existence to a political favor granted Romer by the federal Department of Energy, has also been plagued by rapid turnover in its top ranks, going through six executive directors in the past four years. And the conclusions it has managed to reach after four years of DOE-funded research on "public involvement" in environmental cleanups--conclusions it has packaged in an 88-page "stakeholder participation model"--owe more to common sense than they do to groundbreaking research. Though $7.66 million of taxpayer money has been allocated to the project, most of its published findings merely reaffirm tried-and-true homilies such as "Do unto others."

Now that tax money from DOE is running out, CCEM is scrambling to "regain its vision"--and find something to do that will provide enough revenue to keep open its doors on the 27th floor of a downtown Denver high-rise. The organization has tightened its belt in the past few months, reducing its number of full-time staff from twelve to eight people. Boardmembers say that the next executive director will make considerably less than the $125,000 the position commanded two years ago.

The organization's believers remain upbeat and excited about its potential for smoothing over cleanup conflicts. But its loss last month of yet another executive director suggests an organization adrift--and raises questions about the prospect of bringing such well-meaning, if high-flown, concepts as "building trust" to earth intact.

The only thing that seems certain about CCEM's future is that it won't be getting any financial donations from environmental groups. The nonprofit's chief project for DOE is finding a formula for getting citizens involved in decision-making at DOE cleanup sites. But while organizations such as the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG) and Greenpeace support the overall concept of collaborative problem-solving, they remain critical of the way CCEM has tried to bring those concepts to fruition.

The handful of environmentalists invited to take part at the organization's inception in 1990 left soon after CCEM accepted a five-year grant from the DOE--"one of the major polluters in the West," grumbles Richard McClintock, executive director of CoPIRG. Neither could environmental groups stomach the center's sources of supplemental income, which include membership fees and contributions from such corporate giants and acknowledged polluters as Coors. Aside from the taint they see from DOE money, some environmentalists who have encountered the center's "stakeholder involvement model" suspect the project's underlying purpose is to further DOE's internal interests while paying lip service to public participation.

Environmentalists say it's pointless for them to contribute time and energy to an effort as compromised by its dependence on money from industry and government as is CCEM. But while CCEM has been unable to resolve conflicts in its own ranks, it has spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to help other people get along with each other.

The organization came into being largely due to frustration on the part of Governor Romer, who in the late 1980s grew impatient with the slow pace and expense of cleaning up environmental problem sites such as the Lowry Landfill and the Rocky Flats nuclear-bomb factory. It was Tim Holeman, who served as the governor's environmental advisor in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who laid the groundwork for the concept that would lead to CCEM.

"In 1989 the parties involved in environmental cleanup in this state were in a fistfight," Holeman recalls. "Environmentalists were filing lawsuits and going around in funny suits. Industry was feeling defensive and intimidated. Regulators were on auto-pilot, filling out permit forms and preoccupied with minutiae. Academics were involved with their own research, which didn't have a lot to do with solving real environmental problems. A lot of good people were working on environmental cleanup but were isolated from each other."

Adds James "Skip" Spensley, who practices environmental law at the Denver firm of Holme Roberts & Owen, "We were spending 75 percent of our time and money studying the problem instead of doing cleanup. The governor likes to say, `Let's take lemons and make lemonade.' That's the whole concept of the center."

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