Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Harnessing the Power of Information through Community Monitoring: Insights from Social Science

Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Harnessing the Power of Information through Community Monitoring: Insights from Social Science

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

Industrial and other polluters in the United States release enough hazardous pollution into the air to place over 92% of the U.S. population at an increased risk of developing respiratory disease, while 17% of the population is at an even higher risk of toxic respiratory exposures.1 Federal monitoring of hazardous or toxic air pollutants occurs under the Clean Air Act (CAA); however, the monitors used to create regional estimates of air quality are limited in number and provide only rough estimates over large areas.2 This level of resolution does not inform communities living near industrial emitters of hazards in their neighborhoods.

Lack of site-specific information hampers individuals and nongovernmental organizations' (NGOs) ability to understand the risks they face from industrial activity. This asymmetry in information between firms and community groups decreases the likelihood of social mobilization and limits communities' ability to motivate stricter enforcement. However, environmental law has paid insufficient attention to the important role of information and the effect that information asymmetry has on citizens' and NGOs' framing of environmental problems, their mobilization of resources, and their capacity to demand accountability from regulators and polluting firms.

In this Article, we observe that several local antitoxic organizations have realized the importance of collecting and diffusing site-specific information for influencing the responsiveness and accountability of firms and regulators. By incorporating the production of self-collected monitoring data as part of their tactical repertoire, or store of strategic tactics, these grassroots organizations seek to overcome-and in the process point us toward-the limits of the current federal air-quality regulatory regime. In better understanding this development of civil-society strategies to collect and disseminate these groups' own environmental-monitoring information, we are able to advance our theoretical perspectives on the role of information in the next generation of environmental policy.

To contribute to this developing literature on the role of information in the next generation of environmental law, Part II briefly reviews the socialscience literature on information and examines when and how citizen-based air monitoring and information diffusion are likely to be successful in influencing private firms and regulatory actors to address hazardous levels of air pollution. Part III utilizes the case of what activists have termed "bucket brigades" to examine attempts from civil society to address information asymmetry and motivate accountability. Bucket brigades are campaigns in which local citizens living along the fence lines of industrial emitters use inexpensive but technically validated plastic buckets to measure air quality near industrial pollution sites.3 Named after the use of common plastic containers in place of expensive professional air-monitoring equipment and recalling collective efforts to fight fires by uniting together as a community, bucket brigades represent forms of local collective action. Their unique property is the gathering of monitoring data through air-quality sampling and the use of that data along social channels or points of influence, such as the media, the regulatory community, firms, and other nongovernmental organizations.

This case study suggests how engaging citizens and NGOs in community data-collection roles can enhance information availability and accountability. However, in Part IV, we also advocate for a meta-regulatory role for the federal government. We argue for the importance of government facilitation, oversight, and monitoring of civil society and call for more creative strategies to encourage and support civil-society regulation. Our analysis suggests that an approach that collects and diffuses information at multiple levels and that includes civil society engenders a more adaptive approach and functions more robustly in a climate where complexity and dynamism render complete information impractical. …

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