Putting Science and the Public into Policy

by Leigh Hedger

The amendment was repealed quickly, but not quickly enough. Because of an amendment to a zoning ordinance that allowed anyone with industrial-zoned land to operate a sanitary landfill without a public hearing, the Adams Center Landfill in Fort Wayne, Indiana, began operating in 1975 despite public disapproval.

In 1975, hazardous waste had not yet been defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and facilities like the Adams Center Landfill were routinely used to dispose of hazardous waste. Now, the Adams Center Landfill is one of twenty-one federally licensed hazardous waste landfills in the United States, almost all of which were established through regulations that allowed existing landfills to be transformed into hazardous waste landfills under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. In the Adams Center case, there had been some public hearings along the way. It was not until 1996, however, that the Indiana Hazardous Waste Facility Site Approval Authority was required by the state legislature to hear and take into account both expert and public testimony in preparation for its ruling on the Adams Center Landfill's request for approval to expand its site.

Some members of the environmental sciences and policy faculty group. Clockwise from left, Terrell Zollinger, Philip Stevens, Jeffery White, Matthew Auer, Ronald Hites, Debera Backhus, Diane Henshel, Henk Haitjema, and Thedore Miller.

According to Jane Grant, an associate professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, this is just one of many similar situations across the country that are reaching stalemates between public and private interest groups. What is lacking in most instances, she says, is a more democratic mechanism to involve all concerned parties in the policy-making process. Grant's current work involves investigating forums for these public deliberations and observing and analyzing the conditions that make the process more productive and equitable for all parties involved. Her work is also typical of the activity that goes on at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA), where applied research is used as a springboard to solve technical problems on local and regional, as well as national and international levels.

Your Everyday Stalemate
Grant was involved in an eight-year study of the history of the political issues created by the Adams Center Landfill. She found that in the case of this landfill, there was not an adequate forum where competing views, such as differences in the perceptions of risks and issues of risk mitigation and compensation, could be appropriately aired and addressed. As a consequence, the residents of the community felt resentful for having so little control over crucial decisions affecting their lives.

In the Adams Center situation, the opportunity for an open forum finally did come -twenty-one years after the original landfill was established, but after the hazardous waste site had already been established. After the landfill made its request to expand, the public hearings, which lasted from January through March of 1996, included expert and public testimony addressing technical, social, and economic concerns. The state legislature required the Indiana Hazardous Waste Facility Site Approval Authority to examine the technical issues concerning the landfill--its construction, leachate production and characteristics, thickness of the lining--as well as the social, economic, and psychological effects produced by the site. "One of the main problems is that the processes used earlier in this case focused only on technical aspects," Grant says. This disenfranchised the community in two ways. "First," she says, "average citizens do not have the expertise to address technical issues, and second, their real concerns are with other factors--what the landfill means for their children's health, what it means for their property value, and what it means to the community's future development." In Grant's view, these crucial elements of dealing with the issue had previously been neglected. "I found this year's forum to be an effective process, but it happened twenty-one years later than it should have," Grant says. "Up until this point, the public had been left out while crucial decisions were being made."

Deprivatizing the Policy-Making Process
The problem in the Adam's Center case began with the initial decision in 1974 by a private company to create a landfill, and the exclusion of the community from the decision. "Decision making for economic development is generally a crisis-oriented, free-market approach," Grant says. "In Indiana, typically, an industry comes in and opens a site without an adequate evaluation of need. The state remains reactive." Grant recommends a process that requires the need for a landfill to be identified first, followed by a study of the region to determine which, if any, sites are technically appropriate for a secure landfill.

In the 1996 forum, this type of objective testimony by experts and researchers, including Grant, who were not involved in the outcome, had no financial interests, and were not involved in the politics surrounding the siting of the landfill played a key role in the outcome. Henk Haitjema, an associate professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University Bloomington, also testified in the case. His testimony provided an analysis of the suitability of the site and the possible effects of contamination based on groundwater mechanics. Haitjema corroborates Grant's assessment that a location should have been determined based on geologic characteristics appropriate for maintaining a secure landfill. From the perspective of evaluative hydrogeology, Haitjema studied subsurface and geo-logical formations in the Fort Wayne area to provide models of groundwater flow.

A landfill, Haitjema says, needs a clearly defined geologic setting with a clearly defined aquifer system and groundwater movement that is not seasonally dependent. Unlike air pollution, which disperses into the atmosphere and spreads rapidly in random patterns, groundwater moves much more slowly and sieves through aquifers. Aquifers may be layers of sand, gravel, clay, or a mixture of these materials, and depending on the geologic makeup of the terrain, there may be one or more aquifers on top of one another. In a simple groundwater system, it is relatively easy to determine how and where the groundwater moves. In such a system, "We could decide where to put monitoring wells and declare reasonably well that the determined network of monitoring wells would detect and capture any leaks," Haitjema says. In more complex systems, however, the aquifers may be highly variable systems of sand, clay, and gravel, interconnected at various unpredictable points. "In this type of system, the aquifers may be connected in one location, but if you go over ten or twenty feet, you may have a completely different situation," Haitjema says. Because this is the case with the area surrounding the Adams Center Landfill, Haitjema testified in the 1996 hearings that the site was not suitable for the hazardous waste landfill situated there. If pollutants were released, they could easily travel below, above, or around a well, and the resulting problems might never be detected and treated. While monitoring wells can be placed more closely together, that can make the cost of a secure landfill prohibitive.

Reactive Research and Proactive Planning
The Adams Center situation is just one example of how SPEA faculty members are applying the findings of their research to solve real world problems and to plan ahead to avert future problems. In the end, the Indiana Hazardous Waste Facility Site Approval Authority ruled that the Adams Center site should not be expanded. "By this time, though," Grant says, "the community was already faced with two million tons of hazardous waste in the landfill."

Where contamination problems have occurred, SPEA researchers work to understand the systems involved with the contamination in order to assess what options are available to remediate the situation. Jack Wittman, a doctoral student in SPEA at IUB and a senior research scientist for the SPEA Center for Urban Policy and the Environment at IUPUI, studies public water supply systems and groundwater contamination and protection. In cases of contamination, Wittman says there are three things everyone wants to know: how much contamination there is, what direction it is moving, and how fast it is moving. "If you know these things," he says, "you can predict whether it is heading toward a well used for public drinking water or a stream that may be able to dilute any pollutants, and those responsible for the spill and those regulating the cleanup can make decisions about how to mitigate or remediate the effects of the spill." Through collaboration between environmental scientists and engineers, groundwater models can be used to build a remediation system to prevent contamination from moving off the affected site. For instance, "scavenger wells" down gradient from the release can collect and contain contaminated water so it can be treated. Groundwater models can provide estimates of the degree of success scavenger wells are likely to have as well as assessments of the potential effectiveness of alternative strategies.

The development of models is also a way of facilitating policy-making decisions. Philip Stevens, an assistant professor of public and environmental affairs at IUB, who studies the chemistry of natural hydrocarbon emissions into the atmosphere, says that as part of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, states with areas in violation of the federal ozone standard are required to model ozone levels to justify their control strategies. "This is an excellent example of a scientific model being used as a legal tool," Stevens says.

Models of ozone levels are showing that although reducing hydrocarbon emissions by a certain amount in an urban area could reduce ozone levels locally, reducing nitrogen oxide emissions may reduce ozone in surrounding rural areas. This, Stevens says, leads into the argument that to control regional ozone levels, emissions of nitrogen oxides need to be controlled. "Debate now centers on whether control strategies should focus on emissions of hydrocarbons or nitrogen oxides," he says, "Many cities are focusing on hydrocarbon control because it is effective locally and is less expensive, but it is now recognized that in certain areas nitrogen oxides should also be controlled. Models of atmospheric ozone production can help us determine the most effective control strategies."

The use of models is not always reactive. J. C. Randolph's work with Geographic Information Systems examines the effects of deforestation and other facets of the impact of humans on nature, as well as the influence of interventions, to determine optimal benefits for the environment, agriculture, and the economy. Randolph, a professor of public and environmental affairs at IUB, along with agronomists, agricultural economists, and public policy analysts from Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is studying the potential effect of climate changes in the Midwest. Based on soil and climate variables, models can be used to simulate the growth of crops over long periods of time. Randolph illustrates as follows: Climate projections may indicate that in 2060, northern Indiana will be three degrees warmer during the growing season and six degrees warmer during the winter, and there will be a ten to thirteen percent increase in annual precipitation that will occur mainly in July and August. The model may translate those climate predictions into an earlier planting date and a longer growing season, which could be beneficial for certain types of crops and detrimental for others.

This research makes it possible to examine how agriculture may respond to climate changes and changing technology and how crop yields may be affected by using different crop mixes, hybrids, or genetically engineered varieties. This in turn translates into economic impacts: What would happen if corn were replaced as the dominant crop in the Midwest? What would replace it? What would happen if agriculture were no longer an economic mainstay in Indiana? How would that affect the agricultural equipment industry? These predictions can be used to frame planning decisions, as well as to determine the potential effectiveness of remedial strategies.

Looking at What We've Done
Researchers and society are becoming increasingly aware of the extent and implications of environmental contamination. Past mistakes, due in large part to inadequacies in our scientific/technical understanding of the environment and the risks associated with hazardous chemicals, continue to haunt us. To effectively assess and remediate contaminated sites, and to become preventive environmental planners, researchers are working to understand the key processes that determine the fate and effects of hazardous chemicals released into the environment. For example, Debera Backhus, an assistant professor of public and environmental affairs at IUB is studying the role of very small particles (colloids) in determining the fate of toxic organic chemicals in groundwater systems. These nonsettling particles are small enough to move with water, but they often have a higher affinity for pollutants than for water. For this reason, colloids may be responsible for enhanced migration of some contaminants and decreased biodegradation rates of other pollutants in groundwater systems. By gaining a better understanding of how and why pollutants move about in the subsurface, we will improve our ability to assess risks, set site cleanup priorities based on these risks, and find effective solutions to the problems faced by communities located adjacent to hazardous waste facilities.

Backhus is involved in ongoing studies that illustrate how research aids in improving our understanding of contaminated systems and our ability to make cost-effective decisions regarding site cleanup. Backhus, in conjunction with researchers at Westinghouse Electric Corporation and Noel Krothe, an associate professor of geological sciences at IUB, is examining changes in polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) levels in water emanating from a spring down gradient from a contaminated landfill in Bloomington, Indiana. In particular, Backhus is studying how colloids affect the migration of PCBs away from the source of contamination.

In the 1960s and 70s, several landfills in and around Bloomington were used to dispose of PCB-containing capacitors manufactured by Westinghouse Corporation. It was not until 1975, though, that the EPA defined hazardous wastes and set guidelines for their disposal. Since then, risks posed by the PCBs have been minimized by interim measures including landfill capping, limited removal activities, and, at one location, a springwater treatment system. With a springwater treatment system, contaminated groundwater emerges on the surface as a spring, such as a stream or creek. This springwater is then collected, treated, and released. Other potential risks are yet to be quantified and ameliorated.

Though environmental scientists have gained a great deal of insight regarding migration of chemicals like PCBs in porous media, they are only beginning to scratch the surface in developing an understanding of contaminant migration in more complicated geologic settings, such as those with randomly interconnecting aquifer systems. Backhus and co-investigators are finding that these complex systems are dynamic and that PCB levels may change greatly over the course of a storm. In addition, initial studies suggest that the mechanism of PCB migration varies. During large rainstorms, PCB migration is associated mainly with particles. During dry times and lower-level rainstorms, PCBs appear to travel primarily as dissolved contaminants. The form of (particle-associated vs. dissolved) and changing levels of PCBs have important implications for designing effective remediation strategies and for assessing risks. Old approaches (such as quarterly sampling of water from springs generally during dry conditions) are not adequate for determining true exposure levels in dynamic systems.

The work of Backhus, Krothe, and investigators from Westinghouse Corporation has implications for the development of appropriate methods for assessing and monitoring other hazardous waste sites located in similarly complex geologic settings. Krothe notes that examining subsurface geochemistry and flow dynamics (using natural isotopes and tracer tests) will provide information to guide decision makers in assessing risks and determining appropriate remediation strategies for the PCB-contaminated landfills in and around Bloomington.

Chlorinated compounds like PCB were originally used for their stability; this stability also means that these compounds persist in the environment. Flynn Picardal, an assistant professor of public and environmental affairs at IUB, is investigating how to clean up contaminated sites with bioremediation, which uses microbes to degrade the pollutants. Recent work by Picardal and his students has demonstrated that the mineral and natural organic matter content of polluted environments may play a role in how certain chlorinated compounds, such as carbon tetrachloride, are broken down in the environment. By understanding how these processes occur and how the mineral and natural organic content of the soil will interact with the degradation process, models can be developed to predict the movement and destination of contaminants through the subsurface, their rate of degradation based on the use of different microorganisms, and whether or not contamination levels will be reduced to acceptable concentrations before reaching a stream or public well. Biotreatability studies on contaminated soils or sediments can determine if bioremediation will be a suitable treatment method. According to Picardal, bioremediation is frequently less costly, more energy efficient, and has fewer negative environmental effects than other physical or chemical treatment methods currently in use. Overall, Picardal's studies will aid the development of methods to increase the effectiveness of bioremediation as a cleanup strategy.

While Picardal studies the behavior of contaminants in the environment, Diane Henshel, an assistant professor of public and environmental affairs at IUB, focuses her research on their effects on the environment. Her work for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service involves documenting behavioral, reproductive, biochemical, and anatomical evidence that animals have been exposed to contaminants. Such evidence has been used in a legal case for the National Resource Damage Assessment, part of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), in which Henshel's research was used to assess evidence of harm to human health and the environment in northwest Indiana. "If there is damage to the resources," Henshel says, "the government, theoretically, can turn around and tell the responsible parties that the damage must be fixed, cleaned up, or otherwise offset." Henshel believes that what is really needed is a baseline assessment of a site -of what animals are present, how healthy they are, and any indicators of other problems with a site--before any potentially harmful activity, such as the siting of a landfill, is undertaken there. "There just isn't the money for such a study," she says, "but it would be the best starting point for determining future effects."

Can't We Talk about This?
While research aids risk assessment and indicates potential cleanup alternatives, Jane Grant notes that situations like the Adams Center Landfill reveal part of the real heart of the conflict--differences in the ways in which the risks of such landfills are defined and valued. "The landfill ended up polarizing the community," Grant says," and the results failed to produce ideal environmental outcomes. It illustrated the need to determine a clear environmental policy so that all alternatives, both short- and long-term, are appropriately identified and addressed."

Part of the problem of identifying and addressing these alternatives is that different interest groups have different values. The community's concern for public health and property values will, in the community's eyes, far outweigh the industry's perceived need to secure a landfill site, which is of more concern to the industry. Getting different interest groups to sit down to discuss these seemingly incomparable values is being facilitated by the work of researchers like Greg Lindsey, an assistant professor of public and environmental affairs at IUPUI and associate director of the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment. He is working with various interest groups and other researchers on indices that may be used to standardize methods of weighing alternatives and incorporating the preferences and opinions of the interest groups involved in decision making. These indices can be used to simplify complex data sets; to aid in evaluation, assessment, and ranking of alternatives; and to develop even more specific alternatives.

Lindsey says that the development and use of indices can help make the public policy-making process more systematic and structured. "The value of group processes to develop indices is that people will discuss the dimensions of a problem more thoroughly, evaluating alternatives and focusing on what really matters," he says. "Relative ranking of alternatives with respect to different criteria can encourage better decisions. Going through the process also helps identify alternatives." For example, if there are six possible sites for a landfill, Lindsey says criteria specific to the concerns of the group making the decisions could be developed to evaluate the sites. Examples of criteria include cost of the land, costs of transportation based on the distances from population centers, proximity to wells used for public water supply, layers of clay beneath the site that would retard the movement of water and contaminants, the size of the site and its useful life, and equity issues. "The goal is to enhance communication and facilitate consensus," Lindsey says. "Indices can be used in many areas of concern, from evaluating a site and appropriate monitoring systems to determining responsibility and methods of postclosure care." The types of policies being considered in such a process may range from voluntary education programs, which are generally the least expensive, to restrictions on the use of specific chemicals or negotiating permits for the use of chemicals, both of which incur greater costs due to the need for monitoring and enforcing such policies.

Indices also can be used by agencies to set goals for and track the progress of various environmental programs. Lindsey compares this to the Consumer Price Index used to track inflation. "By watching the index or indicators," he says, "you can monitor progress toward objectives. You know when to take action and when to revise programs." With environmental concerns, however, establishing indices is not as simple as attaching monetary units. "It's difficult to set values," Lindsey says, "because there are so many different parameters. There are many different toxins, hundreds of types of pollutants in varying amounts. We have to determine what we care about the most. It is hard to agree on where to concentrate efforts--different interests, different effects, different costs of control, and different ideas on how to design and implement management strategies. It is a matter of trade-offs--some things can be controlled by one process, but something else may be left out. We are making progress, but it is slow progress."

Evaluating the Institutional Environment
While many SPEA researchers study causes and effects in the environment that assist in shaping public policy, some, like Janice Beecher, senior research scientist and director of regulatory studies at the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment at IUPUI, focus on applied policy analysis. Beecher's work includes surveying national water and wastewater utility rates and state economic regulatory policies. Working with state utility commissions and public and private utilities, she examines the prevailing approaches used to establish water rates. Beecher says compiling comparative data is a way of sharing information and initiating dialogue that helps policy makers consider the range of alternatives for dealing with water utility concerns.

One concern she notes is the nation's aging water utility infrastructure. "The original pipes and equipment cost relatively little seventy years ago," Beecher says, "but they are going to be very expensive to replace. When that happens, this country is in for rate shock as the price of water dramatically increases." This situation, she says, is going to make water rates a fundamental issue in the years to come. "Higher rates will make people appreciate that they're getting a vital product, but then we also must decide what we are going to do about people who have trouble affording service, which is a basic need," Beecher continues. "I think it's the ultimate public policy issue. It combines issues of efficiency, equity, environmental quality, and economic development."

In another case, David Parkhurst, a professor of public and environmental affairs at IUB, is improving methods for analyzing the data used to determine whether a municipal water utility is complying with federal policy. The Safe Drinking Water Act required major water suppliers using surface water to build filtration plants, but an amendment allowed cities to apply to avoid building multibillion dollar plants if they could prove their source water was sufficiently clean. Parkhurst says the current method of reporting concentrations of Cryptosporidium parvum oocysts in water assumes that if no oocysts are detected, one oocyst should be recorded anyway. The rationale, Parkhurst says, is that "nondetects" in a filtered water sample do not prove that the water is totally free of the organism. He says that while this method is accurate at high concentrations of oocysts, it can cause significant overestimation of concentrations when the actual levels are low. "Overestimating might tend to protect public health, but it could cause some water suppliers to be regulated much more stringently than necessary," Parkhurst says. "If we knew more accurately the prevalence of oocysts, we would have a more rational basis for setting and enforcing regulations."

Applied Science Made Public
"It's working closely with a state agency, it's applying what we know about science to solving problems, and it's providing education." These are the traits that Bill Jones, director of the Environmental Systems Applications Center at IUB, says characterize the Clean Lakes Program as "a very SPEA-like program." In addition to conferring at local, state, national, and international levels on policy making, remediation strategies, and assessment of environmental risks, SPEA is constantly involved in information sharing--from teaching in the classroom, to lecturing at national or international conferences, to administering educational and volunteer programs. The "SPEA-like" Indiana Clean Lakes Program, established by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and administered by SPEA, promotes efforts to protect and manage lakes. This includes sharing information through newsletters, fact sheets, and conferences; providing technical assistance in initiating lake studies, interpreting water quality data, identifying management techniques, and obtaining state and federal grants; and administering the Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program, in which volunteers monitor water quality trends in Indiana lakes. Jones says the Clean Lakes Program is an effective monitoring program and that it helps out the IDEM, which is required by the EPA to perform lake assessment work. "They don't have the technical capability or facilities to do the work we do," he says. "We have facilities, graduate students, and colleagues with whom to confer. The students get education and financial assistance, and the state is really getting a lot for its money. It's a great example of state-university cooperation."

State-university cooperation, learning and applying, that is what SPEA is all about. From the laboratory to the field, from teaching classes to testifying as expert witnesses, SPEA researchers are applying what they discover about how the environment works to how public policies are made. The results not only speak for themselves today, but change the shape of the future.