By Tamara Nicholl-Smith
Each month throughout the Houston Port Region small diverse groups of community members and managers from the area’s petrochemical facilities meet face to face to engage in dialogue about plant-related issues such as environment, health, safety, emergency response and communications, transportation, workforce development, and education. These forums are known by several names: Community/Citizen’s Advisory Council (CAC), Community Advisory Panel (CAP), and Community-Industry Panel (CIP).
The Economic Alliance sat down with Diane Sheridan, a local CAC/CAP facilitator to learn more about the history, role, and importance of these face-to-face interactions.
Economic Alliance: How did Community Advisory Councils come about?
Diane: These forums have their roots in the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now the American Chemistry Council) Responsible Care program established in 1988. At the time, member plants made a public commitment to learn what the community expected of them and to try to address concerns. Responsible Care recommended the formation of community advisory panels to provide that opportunity.
Economic Alliance: What is special about the Community Advisory Councils in the Houston Port Region?
Diane: While, Responsible Care motivated the formation of these forums throughout the chemical industry nationwide, one thing that is distinctive to our region is the number of multi-company versus single-plant CAPs. With 130 East Harris County Manufacturers Association plants expected to take part in CAPs, it is not possible for each to have its own. The La Porte CAC is believed to be the largest in the U.S. It continues to grow due to construction of new plants and splitting up of existing plants. In 1997, it had 24 plants. They expect to have 47 plant sponsors by the end of the year. Add in the community members and visitors, and they often have 90-100 attendees.
Economic Alliance: We understand that two of our region’s panels are celebrating significant anniversaries this year. Who?
Diane: The Citizen’s Advisory Council to La Porte Industry began in February 1990 and the Deer Park Community Advisory Council in March 1990—and have met most months ever since. Both are celebrating their 25th anniversaries. While there are similarities among CACs, each is also unique.
Economic Alliance: What are some of the positive changes our region has realized as a direct result of these CAC/CAPS?
Diane: There are some specifics: companies established air monitors requested in two CAPs, companies investing in changes to reduce noise and odors, plants reducing emissions. Annual reports on emissions and on worker safety have let the community track reductions in emissions and injuries over the years. While regulations may be the biggest reason for change, CAPs apply a subtle pressure because no one wants to be the plant with increased emissions or the highest safety rates. In general, CAPs put constructive pressure on plants to continuously improve, not just by responding to community advice but also by learning from their peers in the large multi-company CAPs that characterize east Harris County. CAPs also give the public a face. They help plant managers (and their workers when managers share CAP input) see their operations as the public would. And those outside voices are not the nebulous “general public.” They are specific individuals you will face at the next CAC meeting.
Diane Sheridan, a 37-year resident of Taylor Lake Village, has been a professional facilitator for 29 years. She volunteers with the League of Women Voters of the Bay Area and credits the LWV with teaching her how to develop consensus and honing her organization skills.