An advisory board recently created by the U.S. Army to increase public participation in deciding how to clean up the Rocky Mountain Arsenal is compromised by the Army's influence over it, say environmental activists.
The thirty-member Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), which held its first meeting two weeks ago, is part of a program begun by the Department of Defense in response to another government-sponsored citizen-oversight program, the Site Specific Advisory Board (SSAB).
"It's an Army-controlled forum," charges Dan Mulqueen, secretary of the SSAB, which was launched last spring by the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Colorado. "It's chaired by a guy who works for the Army, and all the information presented at their meetings comes from the Army."
Members of the unfunded SSAB took offense when the Army passed it over to create--and fund--the RAB, a group that has the same mission: bringing pubic input to decisions on the huge Superfund site north of Stapleton International Airport. "We formed, then suddenly the RAB came on the scene, and the Army announced there wouldn't be funding for our group," recalls SSAB member Sandra Jaquith. Despite reservations about the RAB's undercutting her group, Jaquith decided to accept an invitation to join the Army's advisory board. She was subsequently elected co-chair of the RAB. Kevin Blose, technical director at the arsenal, had been selected previously by the Army as the other co-chair.
Though there will likely be a duplication of effort between the two arsenal groups, Connally Mears, the EPA's manager of the arsenal cleanup, says, "We think they're both real positive developments. We're within a year of making major decisions at the arsenal, and we have issues that require as much attention as people can bring to them."
Jaquith expects SSAB to provide a better forum for the concerns of the public. "But if you're interested in the [cleanup] process, it's rather self-defeating not to sit on the RAB," she says, adding that doing just that gives her the chance to directly question government officials as well as the Army and Shell Oil, the parties held responsible for the site's contamination. "The SSAB offers an independence of thought and spirit that can't exist with the RAB, which is essentially a committee organized and run by the Army," she says.
Others question the worth of either group. "These advisory boards are nothing more than a diversion of public energy," says Adrienne Anderson, an instructor in environmental ethics at the University of Colorado-Boulder and an activist in arsenal issues since 1987. "Shell and the Army's modus operandi is to squelch public involvement rather than enhance it," she says. "They plow ahead with whatever cheap remedy they decide on despite any citizen input they get."
"The Army has always tried to involve the public," insists arsenal spokeswoman Ruth Mecham. "We all have a vested interest in making this place the best possible place we can make it." Mecham says the two advisory boards will complement each other. "There's going to be different opinions and some controversy," she says, "but I think both groups can walk hand in hand down this cleanup pathway."
That pathway, for the moment, is hard to find. There's confusion as to who gets a say in what the RAB will recommend. According to Mecham, the board's fifteen representatives of government agencies, Shell Oil and the Army cannot vote on RAB recommendations. That privilege is reserved for the fifteen members who are ordinary citizens, she says. But that's not Mulqueen's understanding. "They all can vote," he says. "Check their rules."
And in fact, RAB's proposed rules contain no restrictions on member voting.
RAB member Beth Gallegos, a Commerce City resident active in arsenal issues since founding Citizens Against Contamination in the mid-1980s, also believes "agency people" aren't permitted to vote, while "real people" are. People have the perception that the group is weighted in the Army's favor because citizen members often miss meetings, she says, while "agency people always show up."
In spite of wavering public participation, Gallegos maintains the RAB won't be a rubber stamp for Army decisions. "As long as you have strong community people, [the Army] won't run over you," she says. "I think the Army may come to regret the RAB, because we're going to put their feet to the fire."
It's uncertain who, if anyone, will be burned when the RAB gets up some steam. A few weeks ago SSAB chair Rick Warner feared it would be the public. Now he's more hopeful. "I wasn't in favor of the RAB, but now I'm beginning to see it as an opportunity," he says. "The arsenal is the largest and most complicated Department of Defense Superfund site in the country. The more resources involved in addressing the problems there, the better. The RAB is here now, so I say let's use it." Twelve SSAB members opted to join the RAB as well.
Anderson points out that the Army and Shell are under no obligation to heed recommendations made by either board. "I have a lot of respect for Rick Warner," she says, "but I don't think that people should put their time and resources into structures that by definition have no power."
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"Our goal is to work towards influencing decisions at the arsenal," says Warner, who attends RAB meetings but decided not to become a boardmember. "Whether that will happen, I don't know. But we're working towards it."
Even Dan Mulqueen sounds a guardedly upbeat note: "I'm hoping the RAB will work well in expressing community values. If citizens bother to participate and try to make a difference, then it can work." He notes that one obstacle to public involvement is the Army's insistence that meetings be held at the arsenal--a move he believes is being made to condition the public to accept the site as "safe for jogging and wildlife viewing and meetings." Many potential participants are reluctant to set foot on the heavily contaminated grounds, Mulqueen believes.
Mecham finds such fears difficult to grasp. "The meetings are in the administrative area," she says. "We have 200 people working out here every day. The Army isn't going to endanger its own employees, let alone anyone else."
Still, regarding the RAB's prospects for success, Mulqueen calls himself "cynically optimistic.