During 1999, the Groundwater Foundation, a non-profit educational organization, began a study to assess extent to which groundwater dependent communities, whose water supplies and public health are at risk from Superfund site contamination, are aware of and participate in technical assistance and community involvement programs available through the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund Program and extent to which these activities help them be successful in involving citizens in drinking water protection activities.

Superfund, by definition of EPA, is the program operated under legislative authority of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compen-sation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA) that funds and carries out EPA solid waste emergency and long-term removal and remedial activities.


The onset of the study involved research by Foundation staff regarding various Superfund sites across the US. Research conducted on the Internet through the EPA's Web site (www.epa.gov) provided information about location of various sites, primary contaminants, and other important local factors.

Nine areas, geographically dispersed across the US were selected; and within these areas, nine residents were selected for interviews. The nine areas represent three with the Groundwater Guardian program in place (a program sponsored by the Groundwater Foundation that supports, connects and recognizes communities working towards groundwater protection) three with an EPA-sponsored Citizen Advisory Group (CAG), Technical Assistance Grant (TAG); and/or Technical Outreach Services for Communities (TOSC): and three with no formally organized community involvement program. All nine communities were dependent on groundwater for public drinking water supplies.

Prior to interviews with community representatives, research was conducted to identify key indicators of successful community involvement. In addition, the Foundation contacted a group of experts on community involvement, including representatives from League of Women Voters and Retired Senior Volunteer Program to advise staff on selection and questions.

This research found individual, social, political, and financial responsibility are four essential factors or preexisting conditions for successful involvement of residents within a community. These four indicators formed the basis by which the Foundation modeled its interview questions and responses to be measured.

To fully assess public opinion, representatives from the Groundwater Guardian program, communities who utilize a CAG-TAG, and/or TOSC and communities who do not have any form of assistance were asked the series of questions. The respondents selected represented a variety of professions and conditions, such as county health department professionals, retired citizens, and citizens residing in communities with large diversity in population size.

Groundwater Guardian representatives were interviewed by a Foundation staff member not affiliated with the program. The subjects were interviewed over a two-week timespan by telephone. The interviews were documented through extensive note taking and summarized in writing.


Once interviews were complete, Foundation staff analyzed the results for use in measuring level of resident participation in issues surrounding the local Superfund site. In addition, data was analyzed in terms of how it related to the four main components of successful community involvement identified in the literature review (individual, social, political, and financial).

Through this analysis, certain common factors emerged. These factors were found to correspond to a significant extent with the four areas of responsibility identified in research literature. Because of the very small sample (n=9) it is impossible to state, based on these investigations, if there was any significant differences between the three groups: Groundwater Guardians, CAGs-TAGs, and/or TOSCs and communities without Groundwater Guardian or Superfund community involvement groups.

However, in spite of the small size of the study, the community representatives associated with organized community involvement programs certainly expressed more positive attitudes toward the community clean-up effort and mentioned their sense of ownership and responsibility with greater frequency than those without benefit of involvement activities or community education.

Further, each respondent in the communities with Groundwater Guardian or an EPA Superfund community involvement or assistance program mentioned a positive outcome. One interviewee in communities without a formal program was negative about the local Superfund clean up and expressed skepticism about future drinking water quality.


The few components identified in the literature also emerged as important through the interview process. According to several studies, social responsibility means citizens understand the importance of drinking water quality to well-being of the community. These interviews concluded to help ensure the general population understands the importance of the Superfund site as a local issue, it is crucial residents also understand that drinking water is important for environmental and economic health and land-use is connected to drinking water quality protection. The most common means for this to occur was public education and education was cited by several respondents as particularly important.

Many interviewees acknowledged there was a group of individuals within the community who were knowledgeable about the site and have worked to educate others about it. Through these actions and the sense of responsibility these leaders have toward the Superfund site, citizens have become more aware of the issue, how it may affect their health and what they can do to contribute to control of the site.

Individual responsibility is another key component to effectively responding to environmental threats from Superfund sites. Interview data indicated a sense of individual responsibility is linked to participation. Participation occurs when the citizen has a sense of ownership, that is, an individual sense it is an issue that they can impact, and be informed about.

Respondents from the Groundwater Guardian and Superfund community involvement programs commented community education efforts of committed leaders enhanced social responsibility or idea of community health and helped provide citizens with the sense of individual responsibility. Several individuals involved in the Superfund programs were committed to protecting drinking water, were concerned about the Superfund site issues, and actively working to educate and activate other citizens to understand and take action.

Political responsibility as a key factor is important because study participants described need for political leaders to become involved. However, subjects interviewed mentioned that party of political leaders or residentsO personal political affiliations need to be put aside for progress to happen. Therefore, working toward implementing and maintaining the benefits of Superfund clean up needs to be a non-partisan issue.

If clean up remains non-partisan, it will provide community residents a better opportunity to become involved. Most respondents interviewed said in their experience, drinking water issues and the local Superfund site clean-up activities had remained non-partisan, therefore allowing community residents from different affiliations to come together.

Although political parties may not divide opinion or action on drinking water issues within the community, other affiliations may. For example, one respondent mentioned divisive attitudes and conditions between agriculture and municipal interest groups. For progress to occur, political responsibility needs to happen on a non-partisan basis and be accepted by as many sectors of the community as possible.

Finally, the financial aspect of local Superfund issues is a factor that depends on the extent to which social, individual, and political responsibility exists within the community. For many reasons, funding for clean up or maintenance of a local site may be delayed, discontinued, or missing.

A majority of respondents explained because drinking water protection requires a financial commitment, itOs important for a communityOs residents to use other factors to locate financial resources.

Several respondents stressed if drinking water safety and the local Superfund site are important to residents and political leaders, it will be much easier to locate financial and human resources toward clean-up and maintenance of the site.

Next Steps:

These initial investigations found many similarities in the comments from community representatives, but also added support to the idea there are several common and important components needed for successful community involvement. Through comments from respondents and research social, individual, political, and financial responsibilities are crucial to a successful community involvement program.

The Groundwater Foundation has determined a need for further investigation. From this data, the Foundation will develop a tool for communities to use to assess progress on the four key areas of responsibility.

The second phase of the study will center on creating this tool for communities to use to successfully gain involvement in community issues and measure progress. Through both phases of the research, the Foundation will work to enhance the public's understanding about how and why a community should build a successful citizen involvement program.

If you have questions, would like to receive a copy of the literature cited for this study and/or a copy of the study itself, please contact Jonna Jackson at 1-800-858-4844, or e-mail jonna@groundwater.org.

Reprinted with permission from The Aquifer.