DON'T TOUCH THAT DIALOGUE
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."
The process began sweetly enough. In 1990 Spensley co-chaired a committee appointed by Romer to devise a blueprint for a nonprofit agency that could bring the state's environmental players together. There were many things to consider. "I remember struggling over the name," Spensley says. "It was never meant to mean we were an environmental organization."
The organization also was designed not to offend anyone. "Our concept was that to the extent we were involved in environmental issues, we would analyze problems but not make policy decisions as to what was best," remembers John Cordes, Spensley's co-chair on the steering committee and director of the Colorado School of Mines' Division of Environmental Science and Engineering.
A nonprofit group endorsed by the governor, given an environmental mission and told not to take politically sensitive positions, seemed to have some appeal to Coors. Still smarting from an admission that it had for years pumped solvent-laced water from its Golden plant into Clear Creek, Coors was looking for ways to repair its public image. As part of its negotiated settlement with the state health department and the attorney general's office in 1990, the beer giant contributed $50,000 to CCEM--which at the time didn't officially exist.
Some environmentalists were outraged. "Coors was negotiating its penalty for violations of state environmental law [at the same time] its money went to help the startup of CCEM," says Adrienne Anderson, the former western director of the National Toxics Campaign who now teaches a class in environmental ethics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "If you're penalizing a polluter, you don't cycle the money back to the polluter for their public-relations purposes. What kind of a deterrent is that?"
CoPIRG's McClintock, a member of CCEM's first board of directors, also took exception to the Coors money, particularly because one of the brewing company's executives had been appointed to the board. "That $50,000 really set the organization off in the wrong direction," says McClintock. "Here was a representative of a polluter on the board. It was a conflict of interest. He naturally had an interest in CCEM creating a different climate around environmental cleanups in Colorado."
Other environmental groups treated the Coors contribution as a litmus test for their own involvement. "We received letters from them asking us to become involved, but our big concern was it was industry-packed and -driven," says Jack Mento, head of the Greenpeace chapter in Boulder. "It looked like more greenwashing."
However, Coors's director of environmental affairs, Scott Smith, who has served on CCEM's board since 1993, says allegations that the center was unduly influenced by his employer are news to him. Coors became involved with the nonprofit because "the Coors family has always been interested in environmental activities done collaboratively," Smith says. "CCEM's mission involves fostering cooperation and partnership to address major environmental concerns. I think Coors has an interest in that."
Tim Holeman also is incredulous at the suggestion that the organization he helped create was co-opted by corporate interests. "People who think we're pawns of a beer company are pawns of their own paranoia," he says.
Far from being a tool of Coors or other businesses, adds Smith, the center is "largely an entity of DOE, which has provided the vast majority of its funding."
And for CCEM, that's been a whole other problem.
CCEM's funding ties to DOE began just a week after the nonprofit was incorporated in January 1991. The connection came, remembers Skip Spensley, in a call from the DOE's Office of Technology Development.
Clyde Frank, the head of the OTD, flew out from Washington, D.C., to meet with the center's newly named board. "He was intrigued with the idea of bringing together people involved in environmental problems," Spensley recounts. "He asked us if we could work on `the Third Dimension' of environmental cleanup: public resistance, public involvement, regulatory barriers--the `soft side' of technology innovation. When he left, I turned to John Cordes and asked him, `Do you understand what he was talking about?'"
There were a lot of jokes about just what Frank meant by "the Third Dimension," says Spensley. But despite their somewhat loose grasp of exactly what the government wanted, Spensley and Cordes wrote a proposal that ended up winning them a $7 million grant from the OTD. (The funding has since been increased to $7.66 million.)
Eloquent as it may have been, Spensley and Cordes's proposal wasn't the only reason the feds decided to sink $7 million into a nonprofit office with a vaguely defined purpose. "The CCEM grant was a peace pipe offered by the Secretary of Energy to Governor Romer," explains Claire Sink of the OTD. Romer, Sink says, was angry about mismanagement of Rocky Flats by DOE and its contractor, Rockwell International. DOE's grant money was supposed to help Romer's new nonprofit increase public participation in cleanup decisions and "teach DOE how to work with groups and how to get them involved," she adds.
But DOE's peace pipe stuck in the craw of environmentalists. "That kind of dependence on DOE funding very much colors CCEM's program goals," says McClintock. The Energy Department money, McClintock says, makes the center "too closely tied" to the federal agency's goal of getting the public to buy off on its often-bumbling cleanup efforts at Rocky Flats.
CCEM had yet to even hire a staff when it received the huge infusion of government money. And it soon became apparent that DOE was looking to improve its public profile through funding the center's work.
Three months after the center began working on its five-year study of how environmental enemies can learn to get along with each other, DOE was already calling for results, says Spensley. "DOE wanted us to do kind of dog-and-pony shows for them," recalls Spensley, who served a year as project manager on what the center called its Technology/Regulatory Integration Project (TRIP). The idea, Spensley says, was to spread the word about DOE's commitment to public involvement and offer research insights into the subject. While CCEM did presentations explaining its plans for TRIP, staffers made it clear they had no public-relations tips to offer, he adds.
From the beginning, says Spensley, the board was concerned about the center being viewed as "a DOE puppet." He maintains that CCEM has never been under the agency's thumb. But when no substantive funding appeared from other sources, the DOE's TRIP grant became the center's meal ticket.
That financial link, coupled with the Coors contribution, caused McClintock to resign from the advisory council that functioned as CCEM's steering committee. The League of Women Voters, which had a representative on the advisory council, also distanced itself from the center. Over the following year, the advisory council itself gradually faded out of the picture.
Staffers also tended to come and go. Romer aide Steve Eandi served as executive director until a permanent one was found. According to McClintock, the board considered two main candidates for the position: longtime Boulder politician Josie Heath and Brian Quinn, a Martin Marietta executive who was already on the advisory council. Quinn got the nod. "That couldn't have been a clearer indication of who CCEM wanted to cater to," McClintock says.
Under Quinn, who presided until leaving in May 1993, the organization grew too big too fast, says Cordes, who was then chairman of the board. "There were some pretty grand plans," he recalls. "We started making great leaps of faith. It got to the point it was going in circles and getting dizzy." The number of staff skyrocketed from 8 in 1991 to 29 in 1993 after DOE sent another grant CCEM's way--a project called the American Alliance for Environment and Trade, which was supposed to find ways to speed new cleanup technology to the market.
DOE spent $2.5 million on the new project in 1993, then transferred it to a nonprofit in a different state. "I think the center lacked the leadership to make the project go," says Dawn Kaback, who was hired to work on the Alliance and then stayed on, filling in as interim director following stints in the executive chair by Sheila Conway (Spensley's replacement as TRIP project director) and Cordes.
Cordes, who took over in July 1993, says his first order of business was getting CCEM under control. Accountants discovered that no tax returns had been filed during the center's first two years. Travel expenses had ballooned from $21,400 in 1991 to $344,100 in 1993, when fourteen "technical consultants" were regularly flown to Denver to work on DOE's Alliance project. The TRIP project also rang up thousands of dollars in charges as staffers crisscrossed the state and the nation interviewing people about "stakeholding."
When David Shelton came on board as executive director in April 1994, things seemed to be looking up. The former head of the state health department's Hazardous Materials and Waste Management Division, Shelton was regarded as a knowledgeable and experienced individual. He lasted just a year, resigning last month to take a job as a regulatory liaison for Kaiser-Hill, DOE's recently hired contractor at Rocky Flats.
Now Dawn Kaback is back in the executive director's chair--again on an interim basis. The job, she says somewhat noncommittally, feels "good."
Discussions of just what CCEM's much-touted TRIP model is tend to get nebulous fairly quickly.
"It's a systematic approach to building trust between diverse interests," offers Shaun Egan, one of the center's project managers. "The TRIP model means saying, `I trust you as a stakeholder to help me make decisions on selecting technologies that will clean up a site.'"
Designed by a sociologist and based on exhaustive research, the TRIP model appears to be the product of four years of reinventing the wheel. Two years alone were spent holding town meetings and interviewing hundreds of "stakeholders"--the center's catchphrase for anyone interested in the outcome of an environmental cleanup project. The stated purpose of those interviews was to learn what gets people involved in cleanup issues and what might make them receptive to new technologies that could speed up cleanups.
A third year went by while the center worked out the details of the TRIP public-relations model and took it "to the field" for demonstrations at two different sites. The last two years of the study will be devoted to "deploying" the model in other locations and evaluating its effectiveness at the two present sites: the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory and the Animas River Basin between Silverton and Durango, Colorado.
Even CCEM's own researchers admit there's little that's profound about their findings. "Treat people as you'd like to be treated--that's what the TRIP model says, in so many words," says Shaun Egan.
"There's nothing really brilliant there," agrees DOE's Claire Sink. But, she's quick to add, "they've done a fairly good job with this little project." The real value of the center's work to her agency, says Sink, is that the TRIP model of public involvement--involvement, by the way, that's mandated by federal environmental regulations--creates "credibility and buy-in" on the public's part. "If DOE came up with the model by itself, you wouldn't have buy-in," she says.
But some average citizens who've crossed paths with the TRIP model in "the field" haven't bought in. "I'm beginning to look at these stakeholder groups as a way for authorities to avoid responsibility and defuse a hot situation by delaying and doing nothing," says Carl Weston, a Durango retiree who quit attending meetings of a group CCEM assembled to make recommendations to state and federal officials on how to clean up heavy metal and acid runoff from old mining operations in the Animas River watershed. "The state health department doesn't want to face criticism head-on from a bunch of [mining] claim-holders who are yelling at them, so they use this group as a diversion," says Weston.
The Animas River Stakeholders Group, according to Weston, consists "mostly of people who represent mining interests with old claims that don't want to have to comply with clean-water laws and are seeking an official way to avoid that." The 34-member group is dominated by mining representatives and personnel from regulatory agencies. Also in the mix are three environmentalists--and a range of opinions that makes the prospect of agreement on cleanup decisions unlikely, Weston says. While calling CCEM's facilitator, Gary Broetzman, "good at what he does," Weston adds that Broetzman's job seems to be "to make people who don't agree appear like they do agree."
The center has managed to create an atmosphere of communication where before there was precious little contact between opposing groups, says Peter Butler, director of the environmental group Friends of the Animas. "We wouldn't have people sitting down if it wasn't for CCEM," he says.
But whether CCEM's success in getting adversary forces to rub shoulders will actually accomplish anything is another matter. The Animas River group, for instance, has yet to decide on a means of making decisions. Notes Butler, "We don't even vote." If anyone objects strongly to the direction of a particular discussion, he adds, the group simply drops the subject rather than disturb the semblance of unity. A hearing before the state Water Quality Control Commission--the only occasion so far that called for the group to reach a common position--saw the "stakeholders" break into eight factions, each staking out a separate position.
Though the TRIP model is based on voluntary participation and collaboration, several members of the Animas group say the miners wouldn't be sitting down with them if they didn't face the "big stick" of an expensive Superfund cleanup. That option could be imposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency if more agreeable alternatives aren't worked out.
Still, Broetzman is optimistic. "They're getting to know each other as people, and trust comes from that," he says. "After meetings, they're starting to go out for a beer."
Carl Weston, though, doubts the group will ever be able to make hard decisions. "It's kind of like the old saying about philosophers: `They never solve anything, they just talk about it,'" he says.
Some of the same criticisms of CCEM's $7.6 million solution can be heard at the center's other TRIP-model test site, the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, which sprawls across 900 square miles of high desert in southeastern Idaho.
"It's a very slow process to involve stakeholders the way DOE is doing it," says Roger Turner of the Snake River Alliance, a local environmental organization taking part in the stakeholders group. "I'm kind of losing interest in it."
With 52 experimental nuclear reactors and a history as a dumping ground for the country's radioactive waste, the Idaho site has earned notoriety as one of the most contaminated pieces of land on the planet. While environmental problems have been piling up since the operation began in 1949, it's only been in the last two years that DOE has agreed to accept input from the stakeholders group now being assisted by CCEM.
That group, complains Turner, "seems to be overloaded with DOE and DOE contractors. The proceedings are driven a lot by their interests rather than driven by the concerns of citizen stakeholders." Also, the options in cleanup technology, including a waste-dump analysis machine called "Digface," have been limited to a handful, all of them funded by DOE. Says Turner, "They're being rammed down people's throats."
Chuck Broscious of the Environmental Defense Institute in Troy, Idaho, decided against joining the group that emerged from the TRIP process. "I didn't think there were enough outside, independent technical experts to balance the influence that would be exerted by DOE and its contractors," he says. Broscious says he believes the group's decisions will be weighted in favor of the Energy Department and those who work for it.
When Skip Spensley is asked whether CCEM has developed a public-participation model that does more to make DOE look good than to involve the public, he answers a question with a question: "Did Jonas Salk invent the polio vaccine for the benefit of drug companies?" By helping DOE improve citizen input, CCEM is helping everyone involved in DOE cleanups, Spensley argues. "No one involved with CCEM is looking to be a patsy for DOE."
Neither is Brett Hayball, the representative of the Shoshone and Bannock Indian tribes in the Idaho stakeholders group. But Hayball says DOE has taken a more accommodating posture toward the tribes in recent years. Though many observers credit the appointment of Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary for the agency's more public-minded stance, Hayball gives the stakeholder process credit for DOE's change of heart toward the Idaho tribes.
And he argues that DOE expertise is ultimately more important to the group's work than citizen input. The key recommendations the stakeholders will have to make, he explains, involve technical choices between complex cleanup systems. Government agencies are at home in those fields, Hayball says, adding that CCEM, particularly Shaun Egan, has been "very responsive" to the tribe.
Turner says DOE is more to blame for the problems he sees with the Idaho stakeholders group than is the center. "I think [CCEM] is trying pretty hard," he says, "but the deck may be stacked against them."
The odds may be against the organization's long-term survival, as well. While DOE has promised to keep grant funds coming through July of 1996, the nonprofit presently has enough money on hand for only two months of operations, says interim director Kaback. With impending DOE budget cuts and some members of Congress talking about doing away with the agency altogether, the funding picture remains shaky.
Despite the money worries, talk of future projects is brisk at CCEM's high-rise offices. Staffers are excited about a "waste exchange" among businesses that would make one corporation's toxic waste another's useful commodity. They'd like to create a place where environmental groups and small businesses could share information, support staff and office equipment: the Colorado Center for Environmental Excellence, or "C2E2," as it's fondly called. Consulting at other DOE and Defense Department sites is always a possibility, as is finding new places to put the TRIP model into motion. Then there's the thought of new meetings to facilitate, new ideas to field-test, new ways to heal the environment and make money, too.
"We want to be the Silicon Valley of environmental management, a place where the best and the brightest in Colorado can come together to solve Colorado environmental problems," says Tim Holeman. "Our mission is as big as the sky.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.