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Three Strategies for Manufacturers to Address Escalating Citizen Science

Feb. 14, 2018
Citizen science groups are eager to fill in what they see as gaps in EPA regulation and enforcement.

While the manufacturing industry assesses the benefits of President Trump’s promised relaxation of federal environmental policy, many may find themselves increasingly embroiled with other challenges. Likely at the top of that list are disputes with “citizen scientists” – non-scientists eager to fill in what they see as gaps in Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation and enforcement.

The term “citizen scientists” refers to groups of individuals with little to no scientific qualification who band together to investigate and monitor environmental issues. Citizen science groups have existed since the earliest days of the conservation movement – the Audubon Society is credited as being one of the oldest such groups. However, open data, crowd-sourcing, and backlash to the Trump Administration all have contributed to a recent surge in citizen science groups and participation.

Activists are flocking to citizen science endeavors, which range from gathering objective data that can be tracked and analyzed by actual scientists – such as counting and reporting the numbers of dragon flies citizen scientists see in their neighborhood, for example – to gathering unreliable, often anecdotal data that NGOs can use as a basis to file citizen suits against industry. As just one example, the Chicago Tribune recently reported on a group of citizen scientists who traverse the city of Chicago armed with low-cost sensors funded by an EPA grant that record air quality data in real time.

These days, citizen scientists use data to get a seat at the table, not necessarily to bring a lawsuit. In Flint, Michigan, residents took samples of drinking water and, after months of effort, got regulators to listen. In Louisiana, activists taking air samples concluded that a local refinery was emitting chemicals, including benzene. The EPA levied fines and, after much public pressure, the refinery agreed to a property purchase program, allowing neighbors to relocate.

Though well meaning, citizen scientist tactics often can result in a waste of time and money, by making unsubstantiated assertions about health hazards or environmental conditions based on incomplete, unreliable, or even non-existent data, particularly during and immediately after high-profile events like a release or the initiation of a government investigation. This doesn’t have to be the case. Below are several strategies companies can employ that may help minimize the risk of rogue citizen scientists breeding misinformation, fear, and potential reputation damage.

1. Build Relationships with Community Members and Government Stakeholders

Work proactively to build relationships with community and government stakeholders before crisis strikes. By regularly participating in community events, which can be as simple as sponsoring a community festival or baseball team, companies build a foundation of trust with community members. In the event there is a high-profile incident, residents may be willing to hear what a trusted and familiar company has to say about it – rather than solely listening to a vocal, but often ill-informed, citizen science group. 

Similarly, building relationships and regulator communication with government stakeholders, including municipal governments and local health departments, helps ensure that those stakeholders may be more inclined to come to you first with any concerns or questions, rather than seeking answers elsewhere.

2. Communicate Early and Often

Companies that are transparent and proactive in communications before, after, and during a crisis can hope to see less inaccurate sensationalism around crisis events. Inaccurate citizen science thrives where people perceive there are information vacuums. In the absence of contrary information, communities are more likely to latch onto alarmist assertions made by citizen scientists and NGOs. 

Companies may be able to avoid this outcome during a high-profile release or similar event by proactively disclosing information about potential health threats or environmental risks, including by distributing written communications in affected neighborhoods and sponsoring community meetings. Even better, companies can be transparent with their environmental compliance and risk management protocols and programs well before a high-profile event. 

3. Prepare to Combat Inaccurate Citizen Science

If all else fails and citizen science turns into citizen suits, don’t be afraid to get creative in employing well-informed defense responses that fit the NGO playbook. 

Successful citizen suit response strategies include self-reporting and working with state and/or federal regulators to remedy citizen suit concerns early on – or even before litigation is filed – rendering NGO complaints moot. Companies can also leverage well-respected experts (including former regulators) to undermine the integrity of unreliable and/or unrepresentative data that can underpin a citizen suit.

Gabriel Rodriguez and Katherine Walton are Schiff Hardin environmental attorneys and contributors to the firm’s Energy & Environmental Law Adviser blog. 

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