Coping with Complex Facts and Multiple Parties in Public Disputes
By John Applegate and Douglas Sarno
This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: John Applegate and Douglas Sarno. "Coping with Complex Facts and Multiple Parties in Public Disputes," Consensus, No. 31 (July 1996) p. 1, 12.
The authors describe the educational tools used to assist a citizens task force in developing clean-up recommendations for a closed nuclear weapons facility. Applegate and Sarno participated in the task force as chair and technical consultant, respectively.
Parties and Issues
In 1993 the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) began clean-up proceeding at a decommissioned nuclear weapons facility near Fernald, Ohio. In accordance with revised DOE policy, a representative board of citizens was formed to advise the government officials responsible for the clean-up. The Fernald Citizens Task Force included site neighbors, environmentalists, labor and business representatives, academics and public health officials. The task force needed to decide what future uses would be safe for the site, and whether contamination of the underlying aquifer could be avoided. The task force produced a thorough and detailed set of recommendations within two years. Their recommended clean-up was less expensive and quicker than initial estimates had suggested. Their recommendations were accepted by the DOE.
The authors argue that "the most important factor in the Task Force's success was the education process by which its members, whose knowledge of the site ranged from minimal to comprehensive, came to understand the details of the problems and the options realistically available."[p.1] Radioactive waste from Fernald would have to be disposed of either on-site or off-site. As is typical, the task force was first inclined to dispose of all the waste elsewhere. This is the NIMBY or "not in my backyard" approach. Over the course of deliberations, the Task Force came to realize that complete off-site disposal was likely to be politically, technically and financially very difficult. Using the educational tools developed by the authors, the Task Force was able to come up with a balanced approach which included both off-site and on-site disposal. Their balanced approach was ultimately safer, faster and less expensive than their original NIMBY position.
The authors developed two tools which enabled them to present the overwhelming amount of technical information involved in the Fernald case in a clear, understandable way. They named their main tool the "Tool Box." Their goal was to condense the vast amount of information into one binder. They started the binder with just a few pages of basic background information. As subsequent meetings brought up further issues, that information was added to the binder in distilled, often graphical form. The authors attempted to present each issue "on a single sheet of paper that compared costs, benefits, and other consequences of alternative decisions."[p.12] Extensive use of color charts, graphs and maps helped to present large volumes of information in an easily understood form. Maps were scaled to allow direct comparisons.
While the Tool Box allowed members to understand the issues, the authors found that "it was often difficult for members to see many variables simultaneously: costs, on-site and off-site disposal requirements, impacts of construction, level of contamination, risk levels, and land use, to name but a few."[p. 12] To provide a clearer understanding of the interactions among such variables, Applegate and Sarno developed a dynamic model, a game they called "FutureSite." The "gameboard" consisted of a map of the site, broken up into a regular grid. On each square were placed color coded chips, which indicated the amount and degree of contamination at that location. The "rules" of the game were set by worksheets listing the costs of disposal options, the acres of space needed for on-site disposal, and the numbers of truckloads for off-site disposal. Task Force members manipulated the model to evaluate the various clean-up options. The model, in turn, illustrated very clearly the costs, benefits and tradeoffs involved in the various options. FutureSite was also used by DOE official and the site contractor, and so provided the various parties with a common frame of reference. Based on their experience with the Fernald Citizens Task Force, the authors believe that the public is capable of making "fair, efficient, wise and stable" decisions in complex cases. Education is the key to producing good decisions. And the authors argue that the key to education is recognizing that "information must be in the right format to be comprehensible."[p.12]