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More reflections on the anticipated demise of the Local Oversight Committee

People who get all of their local news from Oak Ridge’s daily newspaper still are unaware of the effort by some city and county officials to terminate the Local Oversight Committee at a meeting this afternoon (September 9, 2011), but yesterday’s issue of the Oak Ridge Observer has fairly in-depth coverage and Frank Munger has a new report on his KnoxNews blog.  I contributed a guest column to the Observer, regarding some of my thoughts on the issue, that’s included in yesterday’s issue.

I expect that this matter will become a  subject of discussion (although previously unscheduled) for tomorrow’s Oak Ridge City Council retreat, as it has significant implications for relationships among the mayor, other members of council, and the city manager.

Here’s a slightly revised version of the guest column that I submitted to the Observer:

With my expectation that the Local Oversight Committee LOC will be dismantled as a result of a meeting to be held Friday afternoon, I’m reflecting on the purpose of this unique organization, what it has accomplished, and what its abolition might mean for our region in the future.

From my close involvement with the organization as a board member (and current board chairman), I am keenly aware of its shortcomings, but I’ve also seen many positive contributions, and I expect that the LOC will be missed when it’s gone.

The LOC was an invention of the Oak Ridge region and the state of Tennessee, established to represent the interests of the public in communities most affected by the DOE Oak Ridge Reservation via the involvement of the local government officials who were elected to serve the interests and needs of their communities.

There is no other entity that is engaged with the process of cleaning up DOE legacy contamination around Oak Ridge and has a duty to ensure that local concerns and needs are addressed. Mission-driven organizations like DOE aim to do the right thing, but history has shown that DOE needs a “push” to ensure continuing progress in cleaning up its environmental legacies. U.S. EPA and state regulators work for the public interest, but their focus is on laws and regulations and federal and state goals, not the specific needs and concerns of local people. Local governments are not well-equipped to respond to the kinds of challenges that can be created by DOE contamination and environmental management efforts, because these are not the kinds of things that local government normally confronts.

The LOC is led by a board that represents the elected officials of eight local jurisdictions in the region and has provided direction via policies and position statements that were deemed consistent with the interests of the member jurisdictions and their citizens. The organization’s staff and the volunteers on the LOC Citizens Advisory Panel (CAP) provide technical expertise and devote considerable effort to monitoring DOE’s activities, budgets, plans, and findings — to identify negative and positive implications for area communities and their governments. Working together, the three components of the LOC organization have tried to provide well-reasoned, technically valid, and balanced perspectives on various matters related to DOE cleanup and related DOE activities, documented in communications distributed to member jurisdictions and outside organizations. When a specific need arose, the LOC conducted public education, both to promote awareness of conditions and to dispel inaccurate perceptions about the region, or helped run public meetings where citizens could express concerns and meet the state and federal officials whose job it is to help address those concerns.

The LOC seems to have won the respect of area citizens who follow developments related to DOE and the Oak Ridge site. I think its existence may have reduced the incentive for antinuclear organizations to make this area’s environment a target for high-profile criticism, as has happened at some other DOE sites.

Mayor Tom Beehan and others have suggested that the DOE’s Site-Specific Advisory Board serves the same purpose as the LOC. The SSAB does also include citizen volunteers, including some people with impressive expertise, and with a budget several times the size of the LOC budget, the SSAB certainly has greater visibility, but I don’t see the two organizations as equivalent. The SSAB is directed by DOE, is chartered to respond to DOE priorities (not local priorities), and its members are selected by DOE. The SSAB has no representation of local elected officials (with the occasional exception of individual officials such as Councilman David Mosby who have served as citizens) and no arrangement to ensure that the concerns of the people’s elected representatives are addressed.

Also, the SSAB charter limits its scope of activity to a specific set of topics related to DOE Environmental Management activities on the Oak Ridge Reservation. It is not authorized to address some of the kinds questions that turn up on the LOC’s agenda, such as whether there could be adverse effects on residents’ health from combined exposures to the cluster of DOE and private-sector waste processing facilities in western Oak Ridge and adjacent Roane County (the combined exposures seem to be very small, but it’s a challenge to get the information needed to provide the kind of reassurance that residents deserve). The SSAB also could not have played a role in preventing another DOE office from deciding to send radioactive waste from New York state to this area for disposal in the Chestnut Ridge Landfill, as the LOC did a year or two back.

Mayor Beehan’s proposed resolution to dissolve the LOC would summarily dismiss the organization’s citizen volunteers (both the CAP members and the volunteers who have loyally represented some jurisdictions on the LOC board), while “encouraging ongoing citizen participation through organizations such as” the SSAB, the Roane County Environmental Review Board (RCERB), and the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) “to contribute to DOE and State decisions affecting the local governments.”

I don’t believe that the authors of the resolution recognize what this means. If the mayors truly want EQAB and the RCERB to “contribute” in that fashion, the charters for both boards will have to change radically, as both are currently constituted to advise their local governments, not to contribute to DOE and state decisions. Also the boards would need to reorient their focus away from local matters and towards DOE. DOE was a large focus (and time sink) for EQAB during some of my years while I was on that board. The formation of the LOC CAP and the SSAB allowed EQAB to give more attention to local matters – and memberships on the LOC board created opportunities for EQAB, the RCERB and CAP to consult and collaborate on matters that crossed city and county lines. Furthermore, there’s been a special kind of magic in the way citizens have engaged with this regional entity. The LOC has allowed technically minded newcomers from different parts of our region (from Oak Ridge to Oakdale to Ten Mile and Tellico Village) to come together and get involved in studying and working to resolve not only their own questions about personal safety, but also community concerns about matters like postings against fish consumption on streams and lakes.

The aspect of DOE contamination and cleanup that most interests most of the mayors is not the technical details, but rather is the EM budget. On September 1 Mayor Tom Beehan said that the city’s membership in the Energy Communities Alliance (ECA) provides Oak Ridge city government with the resources it needs to engage with DOE regarding matters like the cleanup budget. It’s certainly true that the ECA, based in Washington, DC, is a savvy organization that is well-positioned to advise on goings-on around Congress and to facilitate networking with other DOE host communities. However, from its offices in Washington, the ECA can’t alert us about the special situations here that ought to convince DOE and Congress of a need to devote more resources to Oak Ridge – like the evidence that contaminated groundwater from waste disposal areas near ORNL may be moving under the Clinch River toward private wells in Roane County.

I think we still need the effort that the LOC was established to provide, and I think I’m going to miss this organization when it’s gone. For one thing, I have a feeling I’m going to need to devote a lot more of my time to tracking DOE activities and cleanup progress because the community won’t be able to depend on the efforts of LOC staff and volunteers to alert us to things we need to know.

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