In California, Community Advocates Have a Seat at the Table

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CDPH site-assement What is a “roundtable”? It’s more than a circular surface to host meals or hold a meeting. For the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), the term has come to mean a way to bring together environmental health experts and community advocates to meet, share their stories, and learn from each other. As with King Arthur’s legendary roundtable, the term implies an equal voice for all who participate.

In 2006, the CDPH Site Assessment Section (SAS) decided to host an annual roundtable meeting for environmental health associates, or “stakeholders” around the state. The 2014 event brought together representatives of community-based organizations and the local, state, and federal public health agencies that work with SAS.

“The roundtable meetings give us a wonderful chance to connect with our stakeholders throughout California. We invite community representatives we have worked with in the past and encourage all invitees to propose topics for discussion,” says Dr. Gabriele Windgasse, chief of SAS. “The roundtable allows participants to examine ‘hot topics’ in a neutral setting and build long-term relationships among community advocates and public agencies. It also provides a way for communities to stay in contact with us if they want to. We rely on this network in our work with communities and agencies.”

Did you Know…

CDPH’s Site Assessment Section is one of 28 state partners funded by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) as part of the State Cooperative Agreement Program. The Program helps partners develop their ability to respond to local sites that may expose citizens to hazardous substances. In fact, public health assessment activities conducted by ATSDR’s Cooperative Agreement Partners contribute approximately 70% of all site-specific activities. CDPH is a leader and model partner within the Program, and SAS’s stakeholder roundtable is unique among cooperative partners.

At the 2014 roundtable, a CDPH environmental health expert talked about indoor air quality in homes. In addition, a county environmental health director helped advocates understand how to make their way through the maze of governmental agencies that manage different areas of environmental health. And a UCLA doctoral student talked about understanding and approaching communities that are currently not involved in their own environmental health concerns. Attendee Jamie Rayman, ATSDR Region 9 Health Educator said, “SAS hosted 23 informed and experienced community advocates at the 2014 roundtable. We all learned from each other and shared ideas to take back to our communities and professional work. I made contacts I can call on later if I need help figuring out a problem.”

Perhaps the most moving aspect of the 2014 roundtable was a presentation by Sherry Padgett who shared her journey to become a community advocate with the Richmond (CA) Southeast Shoreline Community Advisory Group. “Shared stories at the roundtables have the same themes, regardless of geography,” she says. “These common experiences create lasting bonds among stakeholders. Roundtables also give us an informal opportunity to learn about new and successful forms of outreach and activism.”

Ms. Padgett owns and operates a business across the street from the former Stauffer Chemical Company hazardous waste site located along the San Francisco Bay in Richmond. From her office window, she can see not only the site, but also the bordering Stege Marsh, a tidal wetlands area, and the shoreline. For several years, she watched as workers demolished factory buildings, trucked waste products off the site, dug up soil, and covered part of it with a ¼-inch temporary “cap” of concrete and paper maché.

During the cleanup, Ms. Padgett began to wonder what had actually happened at the site and if those actions could contaminate the marsh and harm people’s health. Other people working around the harbor front also began to worry about the demolition and possible exposure to hazardous substances. So Ms. Padgett took the initiative and began investigating the role of various government agencies involved. As she did, she learned more about the site, the cleanup process, and most important, how to involve the local community.

In 2004, a citizen group led by Ms. Padgett formed the Richmond Southeast Shoreline Community Advisory Group and took their concerns to local government agencies. This action raised concern about the site and resulted in the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) taking over site cleanup and removal of toxic substances. DTSC ordered collection and analysis of hundreds of soil, soil gas, and groundwater samples. Tests showed that the part of the site that wasn’t under the cap contained unusually high levels of chemicals including metals, pesticides, and others known to cause harmful health effects if people are exposed to them.

This former factory site is only one of Richmond’s toxic hotspots. According to California’s Environmental Protection Agency, the city is home to more than 20 active state- or federally-monitored hazardous cleanup sites. Nearly all of them are along the city’s 32-mile shoreline. Ms. Padgett and the local community groups continue to be an active voice in the ongoing cleanup of the Richmond shoreline.

The SAS roundtable gave Ms. Padgett a forum to share with community advocates and public health representatives her work with government agencies to clean up hazardous sites. Charisse Walcott, Project Officer for SAS adds that the roundtable “helps ensure that CDPH’s and ATSDR’s resources and efforts are focused in the best way to address community concerns and that our responses are timely and meaningful. It has helped us to build trust and a strong network of partners to address the environmental public health needs of the citizens of California.”


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Page last reviewed: October 24, 2014
Page last updated: October 24, 2014