ATSDR Petition Process: Giving Communities a Voice
“When communities and individuals don’t know who can help with their environmental health concerns, the petition process opens up ATSDR, with its regional knowledge and unique scientific expertise, to help them. Petitions are a big part of what we do.”
— Bob Helverson, MS, ATSDR Region 3 director
A concerned student used ATSDR’s petition process to investigate an environmental health concern across two cities that share an odorous landfill. This is an example of how petitions can help address environmental health concerns in communities.
Thousands of facilities across the United States use or produce chemicals or chemical waste each day. When community members are concerned about exposure to chemicals, they can ask or “petition” ATSDR to investigate the potential environmental exposure and related health effects.
Note: Names were changed to protect the identity of the individuals in this story.
The city of Bristol spans two states — Virginia and Tennessee. As expected, there are two of everything, including mayors, police departments, and health departments. However, there is one thing residents on both sides of Bristol share: a landfill that releases strong odors. The Bristol Landfill is in an old quarry where water continues to collect, causing ongoing leachate collection and disposal issues. The landfill has a gas collection and removal system in place, but elevated levels of some contaminants in the leachate and in the air continue to occur.
The landfill is also located near a university, juvenile detention center, and two elementary schools. Approximately 5 years ago, the landfill started to produce stronger odors that spread across Bristol in Tennessee and Virginia. The odors began disrupting residents’ quality of life; many suspected the landfill was causing health issues. Seeing and hearing community members’ concerns prompted Joshua Allen to petition ATSDR to investigate these odors.
A graduate student in the area, Joshua saw firsthand how the Bristol Landfill’s odors affected concerned residents. He used the “Smell My City” app to review the more than 6,000 entries describing community members’ frustrations and stories about the landfill’s odor. He also reviewed formal complaint logs to the City of Bristol and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, where more than 2,500 complaints were recorded. After gathering these insights, Joshua asked ATSDR, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other local organizations for help.
Joshua contacted the ATSDR Region 3 office to describe his and the community’s concerns about the odors and potentially unsafe gas releases from the landfill. An ATSDR regional representative met with Joshua and provided information about the petition process and how it could help address the concerns about the landfill.
At the time ATSDR received the request, limited exposure data were available to evaluate Joshua’s concerns. However, because of ATSDR’s past experiences at other landfill sites, ATSDR was able to determine that it had enough resources and information to accept the petition. Since then, ATSDR has collaborated with federal, state, and local organizations in Tennessee and Virginia on the multi-agency response.
Joshua’s story showcases the uniqueness of ATSDR’s petition process and how community members and agencies can collaborate to assess and address environmental exposure concerns. Some key takeaways from this process include the following
Strong relationships are paramount. ATSDR relied on relationships cultivated over time in ATSDR’s regional offices to provide critical technical input to address Joshua’s concerns. ATSDR provided input to partner agencies that led to the rapid development of a sampling and monitoring plan that assessed air quality in the most affected areas of Bristol, both in Virginia and Tennessee. Strong relationships built on long-term collaborations with local, state, and federal partners helped to quickly move the process from petition review to in-the-field activities. Relationships were strengthened by consistent collaboration on the site and meaningful connections with affected community members.
Collaborate with the community. Shortly after ATSDR was notified of the community’s concerns, regional staff in ATSDR’s Region 3 and 4 offices mapped out a plan to gather the information needed to evaluate the petition request and communicate with residents in Virginia and Tennessee. ATSDR worked with community groups who had already begun working to secure resources to lessen the effects of the environmental exposure. Collaborating with the community and listening to their concerns early in the process helped expedite the process and focus the petition on addressing their health concerns.
Understand the uniqueness of each community ATSDR serves. ATSDR understood the importance of navigating Bristol’s unique situation across state lines and leveraging the help of agencies in both states and ATSDR’s regional offices. This understanding showcased the value of collaboration for the betterment of all residents.
ATSDR’s petition process is notable in that many federal agencies do not offer this resource. The process gives people a way to take action to understand and address environmental exposures that might harm their health. Petitions also connect communities to ATSDR for technical assistance in understanding and investigating environmental exposures.
Interested in learning more about ATSDR’s petition process?
Visit https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/faq.html or call toll free 1-800-232-4636; TTY: (888) 232-6348 and ask to be connected to your ATSDR regional office.