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Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114

DOI 10.1007/s10464-007-9157-5


Power and Public Participation in a Hazardous Waste Dispute:

A Community Case Study
Marci R. Culley Æ Joseph Hughey

Published online: 19 December 2007

Ó Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Abstract Qualitative case study findings are presented. consideration has historically been given to its root: power.
We examined whether public participation in a hazardous Nevertheless, the concept has entered the lexicon of the
waste dispute manifested in ways consistent with theories field in part via the terms ‘‘feminist power’’ (Mulvey 2000),
of social power; particularly whether participatory pro- ‘‘referent power’’ and ‘‘expert power’’ (Salem et al. 2000)
cesses or participants’ experiences of them were consistent and ‘‘power relations’’ (Himmelman 2001). Swift (1992)
with the three-dimensional view of power (Gaventa, Power advocated examination of power in terms of a ‘‘zero plus’’
and powerlessness: quiescence and rebellion in an appa- versus ‘‘zero sum’’ commodity that espouses a ‘‘synergis-
lacian valley, 1980; Lukes, Power: A radical view, 1974; tic’’ versus ‘‘western, patriarchal’’ perspective. She viewed
Parenti, Power and the powerless, 1978). Findings from power relationally as ‘‘power with’’ versus ‘‘power over.’’
four data sources collected over 3 years revealed that Rappaport (1987) similarly described the related construct
participatory processes manifested in ways consistent with of empowerment as an ‘‘expanding resource.’’ While
theories of power, and participants’ experiences reflected resource-expanding notions of power should not be over-
this. Results illustrated how participation was limited and looked, much of the published discourse about power in the
how citizen influence could be manipulated via control of field is limited, as it tends to ignore the less palatable con-
resources, barriers to participation, agenda setting, and flictual characteristics of power. There are some exceptions.
shaping conceptions about what participation was possible. For example, Newbrough (1995) warned we should not
Implications for community research and policy related to be ‘‘naı̈ve’’ about conflict and power. Speer and Hughey
participation in hazardous waste disputes are discussed. (1995) explicitly employed Lukes’ (1974) three-dimen-
sional theory of social power to illustrate how community
Keywords Power  Public participation  organizations and the individuals engaged in them could be
Hazardous waste  Qualitative case study empowered with an understanding of how power manifests
at multiple levels. Similarly, Speer et al. (2003) docu-
mented how such a model of community organizing (one
Introduction that understands and intentionally uses power) worked for
an organization in New Jersey. Prilleltensky (2001, 2003)
As argued elsewhere (Angelique and Culley 2007; urged examination of our assumptions about power in
Prilleltensky 2001, 2003; Speer and Hughey 1995), despite social relationships and linked it to our thinking about
community psychologists’ attention to empowerment, little distributive justice, democratic participation, oppression,
liberation and wellness. Even more recently, Angelique (in
M. R. Culley (&) press), Angelique and Culley (2007), and Prilleltensky et
Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, P.O. Box al. ( called for more
5010, Atlanta, GA 30302-5010, USA discussion about how power operates in our lives and our
J. Hughey Discussions about power can enhance community psy-
University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kansas City, MO, USA chology theory, research and action. We must, however,

100 Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114

reflect carefully on our use of power concepts. Parenti Sugar Creek became the quintessential ‘‘company
(1978), who viewed social power as multi-dimensional and town.’’ In their historical analysis of BP Amoco’s public
relational, much like Lukes (1974) and Gaventa (1980), relations practices in Sugar Creek, Kruckeberg and Starck
warned against a sanitized view of power. He argued: ‘‘By (1988) reported that BP Amoco generated more than half of
underplaying the coercive and exploitative features of the City’s tax revenue. They also noted the company’s
social action, and by neutralizing the causes of social widespread involvement in community affairs, hosting
problems, we have presumed the existence of neutralized holiday parties and school open houses, sponsoring the
solutions’’ (Parenti 1978, p. 25). With a naı̈ve view of annual ‘‘Slavic Festival,’’ and urging employees to engage
power then, one may unwittingly limit the possibility of in civic affairs. BP Amoco’s Sugar Creek refining operation
alternative solution(s) thereby perpetuating unjust circum- ceased in 1982, but not without economic, social and
stances for individuals and communities. This simply will environmental impacts (Amoco/ThermoRetec Consulting
not do if we are to remain dedicated to the values of our Corporation 1999; Kruckeberg and Starck 1988). As liter-
field. Here, we illustrate how power constructs revealed the ature relevant to plant closure effects on communities would
nature of relationships among parties involved in a haz- suggest (e.g., Gould 1991), the impact was significant and
ardous waste dispute. Kruckeberg and Starck (1988, p. 109) noted that many
This article presents findings from a case study in which ‘‘likened the refinery’s closure to a death in the family’’.
social power served as a guiding theoretical framework and Pollution problems reportedly plagued the refinery even
contributes to the emerging literature making use of social before environmental laws were established (Kruckeberg
power in community psychology. We examined in this and Starck 1988). As early as 1920, residents complained
study whether public participation (over a 3-year period) about gasoline fumes in area springs and in 1963 the main
related to a hazardous waste dispute manifested in a way creek which runs throughout the small town caught fire
consistent with theories of social power (Gaventa 1980; (Dobson 1999). Although the refinery ceased major oper-
Lukes 1974; Parenti 1978). Of particular interest was ations over two decades ago, petroleum odors persist in
whether participatory processes or participants’ experi- both ambient (outdoor) and indoor (residential homes) air.
ences of these processes unfolded in a way consistent with Area creeks and springs still exhibit visible signs of
a three-dimensional view of power. This study adds to the petroleum pollution; residents renamed one creek ‘‘Pump-
literature by providing empirical evidence for what other kin Creek’’ to denote its strange, orange color. Regulatory
scholars only speculated about regarding how power might agencies reported that toxic chemicals linked to the refinery
impact these processes (Gould 1991, 1992; Szasz and (e.g., benzene, tolouene, ethylbenzene, xylenes) exceed
Meuser 1997). safe and legal exposure limits in areas on the refinery
property and in the residential neighborhood (ATSDR
1999; US EPA Region VII 2000; MDNR 2000). Industry
The Setting for Research: A Historical Overview
documents indicate that tens of millions of gallons of
petroleum constituents were released into the Sugar Creek
The City of Sugar Creek,1 home to about 3,900 people, is
environment (Amoco/TriTechnics Corporation 1995;
adjacent to the larger City of Independence, northeast of
Dobson 1999). By these estimates, the chronic spills in
Kansas City, Missouri. Since the early 1900s, the city
Sugar Creek total more than 10 times the 11 million gal-
developed around the former BP Amoco oil refinery,
lons dumped by the infamous Exxon Valdez. In fact, one
Standard Oil then, to house workers recruited by the cor-
report indicated that more than one million gallons of oil
poration from Eastern Europe (Dobson 1999; Kruckeberg
were spilled in just one Sugar Creek tank dike in 1977
and Starck 1988). In 1904 BP Amoco began petroleum-
(Amoco/TriTechnics Corporation 2000).
refining operations at its Sugar Creek refinery on the bluffs
Data related to a federal and state environmental
of the Missouri river. Crude oil was delivered by pipeline
investigation in Sugar Creek, most of which was produced
from several states to produce gasoline, distillate fuels, jet
by BP Amoco (standard practice in such investigations)
fuels, residual fuels, asphalt, petroleum coke, liquefied
indicated that contaminants seeping into the residential
petroleum gases, sulfur, and polymers (Amoco/TriTechnics
area have formed multiple pollution plumes. Some of
Corporation 1995). The initial 10,000 barrel-a-day Sugar
these plumes were identified with data from area ground-
Creek operation expanded to a 450 acre facility that refined
water monitoring wells, soil data (Amoco/TriTechnics
an estimated 100,000 barrels of oil each day (Dobson 1999).
Corporation 1995, 1999; ATSDR 2000; US EPA 2000) and
citizen investigation reports. At the time of this writing,
A pseudonym is purposely not used given that the environmental
there is no clean up plan in sight. Toxic pollution continues
investigation is part of the public record and because to do so would
make it more difficult for residents in similarly affected areas to find to seep into the neighborhood, and after more than a decade
relevant information. of involvement regulators are still trying to assess the

Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114 101

nature and extent of contamination. Litigation and health (e.g., Dahl 1969) focused on what has come to be called the
studies related to the investigation brought substantial uni-dimensional view, whereas later works (Gaventa 1980;
media attention and increased community conflict. (See Lukes 1974; Parenti 1978) articulated a three-dimensional
Culley 2004 for details). The nature and extent of com- view power. The three dimensions or mechanisms are
munity conflict exhibited in Sugar Creek is typical of other thought to emerge in a cumulative compounding fashion
contaminated communities described in the social science and are often exercised jointly. Thus, they are not inde-
literatures (Brown and Mikkelsen 1990; Couch et al. 1997; pendent mechanisms.
Cuthbertson and Nigg 1987; Davidson and Baum 1991;
Edelstein 1988; Edelstein and Wandersman 1987; Erikson First Dimension of Power: Superior Bargaining Resources
1994; Freudenburg 1997; Rich et al. 1982). Disagreement
about the extent of contamination, exposures, and health Within the literature about social power, the first dimension
affects, coupled with the length of time ‘‘experts’’ had been (the popular view of power) is generally understood as the
involved at the site without resolution, divided the com- use of superior resources (by A: the relatively powerful) to
munity. As community conflict and public awareness reward or punish behavior of those with fewer resources
increased with media attention, litigation, health studies, (B: the relatively powerless). Because (A) has superior
and citizen organization activities, public participation in resources (e.g., money, property, authority), (A) is able to
the investigation became a critical community issue; one prevail in the negotiation of key issues—via the exercise of
that invited an empirical analysis of power dynamics. control over resources which are used to overtly coerce (B)
to do what (A) wants (Dahl 1969).

Purpose and Rationale for Present Research

Second Dimension of Power: Control of Participation and
Little research published in the social science literature Debate
provides in-depth analyses of how federally mandated public
participation requirements have been applied in communi- To address some of the conceptual shortcomings of a uni-
ties already contaminated by hazardous wastes (Aronoff and dimensional theory of power (e.g., emphasis on overt
Gunter 1994; Carnes et al. 1998; Gould 1991, 1992; Lowry behavior), a second dimension of social power was devel-
1998; Szaz and Meuser 1997). Of these, even fewer scholars oped (Bachrach and Baratz 1962, 1970). The second
have suggested how these participatory processes have been dimension of power is generally understood as the ability to
influenced by power dynamics (Gould 1991, 1992; Szasz determine who participates and what is debated in decision-
and Meuser 1997). None however, systematically examined making about key issues. This dimension manifests through
how social power manifested through such processes. An setting agendas or constructing barriers to participation by
analysis of social power is crucial, given that power preventing the less powerful from raising issues, resulting in
dynamics are suspected to affect these processes at con- their withdrawal from participation (Bachrach and Baratz
taminated sites (e.g., Couch et al. 1997; Gould 1991, 1992; 1962, 1970). Whereas the first dimension is revealed through
Levine 1982; Molotch 1970; Rich et al. 1995; Szasz and overt actions by parties to coerce certain forms of partici-
Meuser 1997). Such an analysis also seems fruitful given that pation and thus prevail, the second dimension is often hidden.
previous research has demonstrated the explanatory power The relationship between parties reflects one in which ‘‘rules
of these concepts with respect to other community phe- of the game’’ (e.g., institutional procedures or agendas) are
nomena (Gaventa 1980, Speer and Hughey 1995, Speer et al. used to systematically benefit one group (A) over another so
2003). Therefore, this research joins a handful of scholarly that one group (B) is less able to defend and promote their
investigations that evaluated the application of participation interests (Bachrach and Baratz 1970). Thus, the second
requirements in communities with existing hazardous waste dimension is used intentionally or unwittingly by parties
sites and to our knowledge it is the first to systematically through overt or covert conflict in relationships to constrain
analyze whether these participatory processes manifest in a or channel participation. Prevailing in this dimension results
way consistent with social power. in a cascade of benefits or barriers to participants and can
effectively remove the necessity to use instruments of the
first dimension of power without overt conflict (Lukes 1974).
Guiding Theoretical Framework: Three Dimensions of
Social Power Third Dimension of Power: Shaping Interests

The scholarship on social power has, over time, largely The third dimension of social power was articulated by
adopted a multi-dimensional view of power. Early writers Lukes (1974) to capture the significance of latent conflict

102 Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114

and the more elusive systemic forces not set forth by one- individual citizens and citizen groups in the seeking of
and two-dimensional views of power. The third dimension information about, decision-making related to and the
is generally thought to manifest as the ability of the rela- management of planning regarding [environmental]
tively powerful (A) to control and disseminate myths and issues’’ (p. 163). We looked for both formal and informal
ideology which are used to shape the very thoughts, desires modes of participation (e.g., meeting attendance, presen-
and interests of the relatively powerless (B) (Gaventa 1980; tations, public comment, e-mails, phone calls, letter-
Lukes 1974; Parenti 1978). The perception of what is writing, collective actions such as demonstrations or
possible or imperative is thought to be a key feature of the rallies, etc.), irrespective of the level of citizen influence or
third dimension of power. Although beyond the scope of decision-making power.
this research, it is relevant to Freire’s notion of (1968) We explored two types public participation. First,
‘‘critical consciousness’’ and the potential for a manipu- ‘‘Official’’ vehicles for public participation were defined as
lated ‘‘consensus’’ (Gaventa 1980; Horton and Freire 1990; planned opportunities for public participation designed
Lukes 1974; Parenti 1978). with agency or government oversight or formal approval
It is generally maintained that the manipulation and (e.g., public comment periods, public meetings). Second,
determination of interests is particularly effective given the ‘‘Unofficial’’ vehicles for public participation were defined
cumulative and transactive effects of all three dimensions as planned opportunities for public participation devised by
of social power (Gaventa 1980; Lukes 1974). In short, the citizenry. These included citizen group activities, such
those most successful at exercising power characteristic of as meetings, letter-writing, phone calls, demonstrations,
the first and second dimensions, i.e., resources, control of documentation of pollution, and so on. ‘‘Participatory
participation and debate, are better positioned to actually processes’’ were defined as those processes that unfolded
shape the self-interests of others so that the interests of the through opportunities for public participation related to the
dominant party are maximized. As others have suggested BP Amoco investigation in Sugar Creek (via ‘‘official’’ or
(Gaventa 1980; Lukes 1974; Parenti 1978), here what we ‘‘unofficial’’ vehicles). As described in our findings, the
attempt to reveal with respect to social power is the investigation formally began in 1989 with a voluntary
examination of what occurred when ‘‘official’’ participa- consent agreement between EPA Region VII and BP
tory processes were unfolding (e.g., during public Amoco. The investigation was the result of standard reg-
meetings) and what of potential relevance to the outcome ulatory processes instigated by the closure of the refinery in
did not occur. Our analysis attempts to illuminate complex, 1982, the extent of suspected on- and off-site contamina-
transactive relationships that may have been guided by tion, and increasing public awareness and community
underlying power dynamics and to make explicit the power conflict regarding the contamination. Opportunities for
concepts implicit in the design and emergence of ‘‘official’’ public participation, including a series of public meetings,
and ‘‘unofficial’’ forms of public participation. Through did not begin until 2000 following a class action lawsuit
analyses of multiple document sources and key informant settlement and the June 1998 formation of the citizen
interviews guided by power concepts, we analyze the group: Citizens Learning Everything about Amoco Negli-
nature of participatory processes that unfolded in Sugar gence and Underground Pollution (CLEANUP).2
Creek Thus, our purpose was to examine whether the
participatory processes set into motion by the implemen-
tation of ‘‘official’’ vehicles for public participation Method
manifested in ways consistent with social power.
A qualitative case study approach was used (Denzin and
Lincoln 1998; Lincoln and Guba 1985, 1998; Yin 1994).
Public Participation The intent was to capture complex transactions among
individuals and institutions embedded in the Sugar Creek
Various definitions of the terms ‘‘public participation,’’ context. This sort of empirical inquiry is particularly
‘‘vehicles’’ for public participation, and ‘‘participatory important where, as was the case in Sugar Creek, the
processes’’ are used (Cvetkovich and Earle 1994; Fiorino boundaries between public participation and its community
1990, 1996; Steelman and Ascher 1997). These can include context were blurred (Yin 1994). Consonant with the
but are not limited to activities such as individual voting approaches taken by others who have explored similar
behavior, collective proposals for binding referenda among
the citizenry, advisory group involvement, or meeting CLEANUP represented the only organized group of residents
engaged in the investigation. The group formed out of shared
attendance. For this study, ‘‘public participation’’ was
interest(s): frustration with what was perceived as a flawed and slow-
defined in accordance with the interpretation offered by moving investigation, and the desire to adequately address the
Cvetkovich and Earle (1994): ‘‘direct involvement of pollution of their neighborhood.

Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114 103

Phenomena of Interest organizing related to environmental issues, began as a

• Participatory Processes set into motion by practicum experience with CLEANUP and later evolved
implementation of “official” vehicles into her dissertation research. As described below, she
• Participants’ Experiences of these processes
systematically engaged in participant observation to better
understand the personal, organizational and institutional
Data Generation relationships that shaped the hazardous waste investiga-
tion. Notably, this allowed her to attend the bulk of public
meetings related to the BP Amoco investigation. Further,
Focus Group Focus Group Focus Group
E-Mail Newsletters
given the researcher’s familiarity with all parties and that
Minutes Agendas Video
CLEANUP members consistently expressed an interest in
evaluation of their experiences related to public partici-
pation, this research was, in part, designed to explore their
Qualitative Data
struggle to meaningfully participate in the investigation.
The first author was trained in qualitative methods, had
conducted a number of qualitative studies, and operated
Inductive and Deductive Development of Thematic Categories and Subthemes
from a critical theory perspective (Lincoln and Guba

Data Indexing
Interview Participants

To explore how public participation in the BP Amoco

Findings: Description of the Nature of investigation was experienced first-hand by key infor-
Participatory Processes and Participants’
Experiences of these processes mants, interview data were obtained from key public
meeting participants. As described below, the BP Amoco
Fig. 1 Research strategy Focus Group, a series of public meetings begun in February
2000 (nearly 20 years after the refinery’s closure) func-
tioned as the primary ‘‘official’’ vehicle for public
phenomena (e.g., Aronoff and Gunter 1994; Gould 1991, participation in Sugar Creek. Generally, the BP Amoco
1992; Szasz and Meuser 1997), participant interview data Focus Group provided the only public forum for relevant
were combined with the analyses of multiple document parties to discuss the investigation.
sources. To assure completeness and accuracy of findings
and to overcome the limits of any single strategy or data
source, qualitative case studies typically use multiple Participant Identification and Recruitment
sources and strategies for data collection (Denzin and
Lincoln 1998). We reasoned that uncovering the same Fifteen individuals representing various entities and who
information from more than one vantage point would allow were extensively involved in the BP Amoco Focus Group
for description of how findings manifest under different meetings were asked via e-mail to participate in interviews.
circumstances and assist in the confirmation of findings Specifically, individuals representing the entities listed in
(Denzin and Lincoln 1998; Miles and Huberman 1989). the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Public
Shown in Fig. 1 is our research strategy. It includes our Involvement Plan designed exclusively for Sugar Creek
multiple sources of data and protocol for analyses. were sought for participation. These included representa-
tives from EPA Region VII, the Missouri Department of
Natural Resources (MDNR), the Agency for Toxic
Role of Researchers Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the City of
Sugar Creek, Citizens Learning Everything about Amoco
To provide some context for data collection, it is important Negligence and Underground Pollution (CLEANUP), BP
to note that the first author was extensively involved as a Amoco, and the Kansas State University Technical Out-
participant-observer in Sugar Creek for more than 4 years; reach Services to Communities (TOSC). In all cases these
from October 1999 until well beyond the timeframe key informants (our participants) served as the primary or
selected for data collection which ended in December only designated meeting attendees for their institution or
2002. The first author’s initial involvement, a product of organization and attended all or most of the BP Amoco
both a personal and professional interest in community Focus Group meetings during the 3 year timeframe

104 Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114

selected for study.3 Only BP Amoco representatives (i.e., agendas of the meetings were noted and transcribed ver-
Site Manager and Public Relations Director) refused to batim for textual analysis.
participate in interviews, citing lack of time and a concern
that such participation would not likely serve the com-
E-mail ‘‘Listserv’’ Correspondence
pany’s interests.4 It is perhaps important to note that with
the exception of CLEANUP members (who did not
E-mail correspondence functioned as an informal ‘‘list-
socialize with one another before the formation of their
serv’’ to facilitate communication among the citizen group
organization) the researchers do not know the extent to
CLEANUP and others involved in the investigation. All
which participants’ social networks overlapped. Intervie-
e-mail correspondence between CLEANUP and others
wees were asked to talk about their experiences as
involved in the BP Amoco Focus Group was compiled for
representatives of their respective institutions. The extent
analysis (n = 2,498). CLEANUP members systematically
to which our data might have been shaped by overlapping
and publicly copied the first author in their ‘‘listserv’’
social networks is unknown.
communications. An archive of these data was created, and
each e-mail was printed and catalogued by date for textual
Document Data Sources analyses.

With other data sources, documents were used to analyze

the nature of participatory process and participants’ expe- Newsletters
riences. Documents obtained for analyses included those
related to the BP Amoco Focus Group, e-mail ‘‘listserv’’ BP Amoco and the City of Sugar Creek routinely distrib-
correspondence, and public newsletters that published uted newsletters to Sugar Creek residents. The City’s
information relevant to the investigation. monthly newsletter, Sweet Talk, occasionally published
articles about the BP Amoco investigation and announced
Focus Group meeting times. BP Amoco’s newsletter, BP
BP Amoco Focus Group Documents
Newsclips, was mailed to Sugar Creek residents about two
or three times a year. All newsletters mailed to residents by
The BP Amoco Focus Group functioned as the primary
the City (n = 35) and BP Amoco (n = 8) were analyzed.
‘‘official’’ vehicle for public participation. The BP Amoco
Focus Group—a series of ongoing public meetings—
provided the only public forum for relevant parties to
Procedures for Data Collection
gather and discuss the BP Amoco investigation. All
meeting minutes, agendas and available video footage of
BP Amoco Focus Group Participant Interviews
the 15 Focus Group meetings that occurred during the
3-year timeframe for this study (between February 2000,
All interviews (n = 13) were conducted by the first author
the inception of the BP Amoco Focus Group, and
in locations chosen by participants, either at their place of
December 2002) were obtained for analysis. While agendas
employment (n = 8) or residence. Participants were
and minutes were analyzed in their entirety, video footage
interviewed using an adapted version of Berg’s (1989)
was used solely to verify the accuracy and completeness of
‘‘unstandardized interview’’ technique. Interviews lasted
meeting agendas and minutes. To ensure that events that
about 1.5 hours. Informed consent was obtained, and all
unfolded during the meetings but not captured in the
but one participant indicated their name could be reported
agendas or meeting minutes were accessed for analyses,
with their comments. Therefore, with consent, names and/
discrepancies between video footage and the minutes and
or job titles of participants are used throughout this paper.5
3 To ensure accuracy, interviews were audio-recorded and
These individuals represented the vast majority of those who
regularly attended and participated in the meetings, which averaged transcribed verbatim. Participants were provided with a
about 20 persons per meeting. Only city officials and CLEANUP copy of their interview transcript via e-mail so they could
members were residents of Sugar Creek and of those, all but one had review their transcript and make desired changes or addi-
lived there for 20 or more years. Additional demographic character- tions. Only one participant expressed the desire to clarify
istics were not collected. For more details see Culley (2004).
BP officials’ refusal to participate was somewhat surprising, given
that they routinely expressed an interest in this research. In fact, an CLEANUP members specifically requested that their names be
MDNR representative indicated to the researcher that BP Amoco’s used and noted their frustration with academic research that used
PR Director phoned him to inquire about whether MDNR would pseudonyms, which they argued made it more difficult for interested
participate and requested a follow-up phone call to discuss the content parties to find relevant information about public environmental
of the interview. investigations.

Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114 105

one small portion of an interview and subsequently pro- apparently consistent with dimensions of social power; and
vided the researcher with such clarification, which was (2) characterized how public participation was experienced
added to the transcript for analysis. by key BP Amoco Focus Group participants throughout the
BP Amoco investigation.
Two procedures guided data analyses. First, thematic
Measures categories relevant to the data and the research purpose
were inductively and deductively developed by the lead
All interviewees were asked: ‘‘Tell me about how you’ve author. Therefore, both anticipated and unanticipated cat-
experienced public participation related to the BP Amoco egories pertinent to the study were documented. Second,
investigation in Sugar Creek.’’ ‘‘Or in other words, what do open coding procedures were employed in which data were
you think is important for me to know about public par- systematically analyzed to identify emerging themes and
ticipation in Sugar Creek?’’ Given that unstructured subthemes. The aim was to characterize the data from
interviews are explicitly designed to allow for rich multiple sources. What did these participatory processes
description of participants’ own experiences rather than the look like? Did they manifest in ways consistent with
researchers’ preconceived notions of such (Berg 1989; dimensions of social power? How did participants report
Denzin and Lincoln 1998; Lincoln and Guba 1985, 1998; their experiences of public participation? Were the rela-
Yin 1994), this open-ended question was designed to elicit tionships between key players consistent with social
responses from participants about how they experienced power?
public participation in Sugar Creek. To ensure that par-
ticipants had the opportunity to discuss experiences
consistent with manifestations of social power, they were Data Indexing
prompted about the nature of relationships between Focus
Group participants, agenda-setting, decision-making pro- A manual systematic indexing process modeled after Culley
cesses related to key issues, and barriers (if any) to and Angelique’s (2003) system was utilized to develop
participation (see Culley 2004 for details). thematic categories and guide open coding. For example, to
characterize the nature of participatory processes the lead
author created the (inductive, anticipated) thematic cate-
Procedures for Document Collection gories of ‘‘Official’’ and ‘‘Unofficial’’ vehicles for public
participation. To describe participants’ experiences of par-
All document data were collected via participant observa- ticipatory processes the researcher created the (inductive,
tion (Adler and Adler 1998; Berg 1989), as the lead author anticipated) thematic category ‘‘General Challenges to
was extensively involved in Sugar Creek from October Public Participation.’’ Below these major thematic catego-
1999 until well past this study’s timeframe. She system- ries, participants’ responses and relevant text from all data
atically engaged in participant observation to better sources within each category were listed and coded on both
understand the personal and institutional relationships that the index cards and a copy of the transcript or document.
shaped the hazardous waste investigation in Sugar Creek For example, textual evidence of ‘‘General Challenges to
and attended all but two BP Amoco Focus Group meetings. Public Participation’’ (e.g., ‘‘The community is very frac-
Participant observation allowed immersion in the natural tured’’) was listed under the (anticipated) thematic category
processes of communication (e.g., informal discussions, ‘‘General Challenges to Public Participation.’’ After itera-
formal and informal meetings, e-mail correspondence) and tive exhaustive open coding and systematic indexing, the
thereby allowed access to information that may not have lead author explored the various themes and subthemes that
been otherwise obtained (Adler and Adler 1998; Berg emerged from the four sources of data to characterize the
1989). nature of participatory processes and participants’ experi-
ences of these processes. The researcher then systematically
documented all themes and subthemes that emerged from
Data Analyses more than one data set.

Data analyses procedures were consistent with others who

have explored similar phenomena (Aronoff and Gunter Finding and Analyses
1994; Gould 1991, 1992; Szasz and Meuser 1997). All data
were textually analyzed for content to identify emerging Two forms of public participation were identified:
thematic categories and subthemes that: (1) described ‘‘Official’’ and ‘‘Unofficial.’’ Environmental regulators did
participatory processes in Sugar Creek; particularly those not implement ‘‘official’’ vehicles for public participation

106 Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114

for 10 years after the investigation formally began, in 1989 fit with other entities. Simply put, ‘‘unofficial’’ processes
when EPA used its legal authority under section 3008(h) of reflected their struggle to navigate their way through these
the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)6 to institutional arrangements.
order BP Amoco to enter into a consent decree. Notably, For several reasons the interplay of findings from all
there are no statutory requirements for public participation four data sources invite an analysis of power. First, our
when contaminated commercial properties are designated findings clearly established that conflict between groups
as ‘‘corrective action’’ sites under section 3008(h) of was commonplace, whether overt or otherwise. Second,
RCRA. Thus, ‘‘official’’ vehicles for public participation barriers against full or effective participation in ‘‘official’’
were implemented in Sugar Creek 17 years after the processes were present. Third, findings suggested that
refinery closed and only at the discretion of regulators. some parties (via control of key resources, agenda setting
‘‘Official’’ settings were those secured by governmental or tactics, or manipulation of community symbols) were able
corporate interests. The one ‘‘unofficial’’ effort we identi- to shape debate about key issues in ways that systemati-
fied had no such institutional affiliation. All interviewees cally benefited some parties over others. Finally, the
identified the BP Amoco Focus Group as the primary emphasis placed on ‘‘unofficial’’ processes enacted by
‘‘official’’ vehicle for public participation in Sugar Creek. CLEANUP and highlighted by all participants invites an
Because this was the primary ‘‘official’’ vehicle and analysis of power.
because many data in our study referenced the BP Amoco The driving question of this research was whether the
Focus Group, we devote most of our analyses to this par- participatory processes set into motion by the implemen-
ticipatory form (see Culley 2004 for detailed analyses). tation of ‘‘official’’ vehicles for public participation
Other ancillary ‘‘official’’ vehicles included one ‘‘public manifested in ways consistent with social power. Findings
availability session,’’ akin to a poster session at an aca- about the nature of ‘‘official’’ and ‘‘unofficial’’ participa-
demic conference, the siting of an information repository at tory processes combined with those about how participants
the Sugar Creek public library, development of an EPA experienced them suggested multiple and largely unac-
website and fact sheets specific to the Sugar Creek site, and knowledged social processes, closely aligned with
public comment periods for written response to technical dimensions of social power. It appeared all parties used
aspects of site remediation (pending at the time of writing). instruments of power to defend and promote their inter-
We mention these ancillary forms only when they provide ests—some more successfully than others. To illustrate
meaningful context for our findings. how each dimension manifested in this case study, we
Importantly, ‘‘unofficial’’ grassroots participation attempt to ‘‘tell the story’’ of how the three power
emerged in Sugar Creek when CLEANUP formed 1 year dimensions are related to participatory processes and
before ‘‘official’’ vehicles were implemented by regulators individual experiences of these given the ‘‘official’’ and
in Sugar Creek. CLEANUP became the only organized ‘‘unofficial’’ vehicles available in Sugar Creek. While we
effort in contradistinction to the ‘‘official’’ form(s) of par- begin with the first dimension, the reader should be aware
ticipation. ‘‘Unofficial’’ participatory processes uncovered that the three dimensions are thought to emerge in a
in this study included informal organizational meetings (in cumulative, compounding fashion and can be exercised
resident homes), ‘‘citizen investigation’’ activities (e.g., jointly. Thus, they are not independent mechanisms.
trespassing, documenting pollution, e-mail correspondence
with regulators), and collective actions (e.g., demonstra-
tions). With no ‘‘official’’ vehicle available, CLEANUP’s First Dimension of Power: Superior Bargaining
engagement in the BP Amoco investigation required that Resources
they develop an understanding of the roles, responsibilities
and relationships among the organizations and institutions When this construct is applied to the relationships among
involved in the BP Amoco investigation and how the group those engaged in the participatory processes in Sugar
Creek, it becomes clear that certain entities were able to get
It is important to note that RCRA covers the vast majority of what they wanted through the control of resources. They
regulated hazardous waste sites in the United States. In 1999, these were also able to prompt others to behave in ways they
sites totaled more than 40,000 and included nearly 75 million tons of
might not have otherwise, and those with less advantageous
toxic waste from 1,575 treatment, storage and disposal facilities,
17,914 waste transporters and 20,083 large quantity generators (EPA resources were compelled to behave in ways that maxi-
2001). These do not include the more than 400,000 ‘‘conditionally mized the interests of the relatively powerful. The
exempt small quantity generators’’ not regulated by EPA under convergence of data sources offered multiple examples of
RCRA or ‘‘Superfund’’ programs (EPA 1994), nor do they include the
how instruments of the first dimension of power were used
more than 20,000 sites with radioactive materials licenses overseen by
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Franklin-Ramirez and Steim- by various parties participating in the BP Amoco investi-
bach 1997). gation. Here are two illustrations of how the first dimension

Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114 107

of power manifested: as the ‘‘official’’ and ‘‘unofficial’’ propaganda out’’ and ‘‘feather their own bonnet’’
participatory processes unfolded. (November 16, 2002, p. 17). Janet Elliott said:
I think we had hoped something good would come
out of it...[but] we have gotten nothing out of it...and
Illustration #1: ‘‘Official’’ Participatory Processes
now [the regulators] have the opportunity to say
‘‘hey, we’ve worked with these local people...we’ve
Findings suggested that Sugar Creek political officials used
got all these citizens out here that we’re working with
their bargaining resources as a municipal government
and it’s going well and we’re doing a good job
authority (read: representatives of ‘‘the people of Sugar
(November 22, pp. 3, 6).
Creek’’) to negotiate with EPA and MDNR officials (who
had legitimacy as environmental regulatory authorities) for They similarly described the process as ‘‘frustrating,’’ ‘‘a
establishment and maintenance of the primary ‘‘official’’ dog and pony show’’ or ‘‘insulting.’’ For example, Barbara
vehicle for public participation (BP Amoco Focus Group). Chappell argued:
These officials allowed use of the library and other public
You go to these meetings and the room is set up in a
venues (e.g., newsletters) in exchange for the benefit of
way that all the tables are in a square where they’re
showing the City was meeting its obligation to represent
all looking at each other. EPA sets together, MDNR
the citizens of Sugar Creek (i.e., something they wanted).
sets together, ATSDR, [TOSC]...but the table that
Thus, the City established the BP Amoco Focus Group and
does not face us, the people in the audience, Amoco
paid its facilitator, a BP Amoco consultant. Because the BP
sets...and the Mayor. You know, that is insulting to
Amoco Focus Group was the only ‘‘official’’ public forum
me! It’s letting me know that we don’t matter to
for all parties to gather and discuss the investigation, it
them. You mean to talk about body language, that’s
provided a setting within which reward and punishment
body language! That shows us where we are. We’re
in the ‘‘official’’ participatory realm could occur and be
nothing (November 16, 2002, p. 13).
readily identified. CLEANUP was rewarded for their
participation with the opportunity for consistent public In contrast, others recalled positive experiences of the
interaction with regulatory authorities in an ‘‘official’’ BP Amoco Focus Group and emphasized its utility as a tool
forum to express their grievances (i.e., something they for communication. The data revealed that the BP Amoco
wanted). It is not difficult to imagine why the City and Focus Group was so well received by regulators that EPA
regulators desired CLEANUP’s participation. CLEANUP and MDNR officials received an award from EPA for their
was the only group of citizens who made public their involvement in the BP Amoco Focus Group. Reportedly,
concerns about the investigation. If CLEANUP was the Focus Group was recognized as an exemplar of regu-
excluded altogether, this would publicly call into question lators’ attempts to facilitate public involvement. This
whether the BP Amoco Focus Group was representative. supports the notion, consistent with the first dimension and
As expected with the first dimension of social power, we CLEANUP members’ assertion, that their involvement cost
found some overt behavioral conflict between the City and the CLEANUP group but benefited others. It bears noting
CLEANUP during Focus Group meetings. For instance, that while by no means did CLEANUP expect a warm
interview, BP Amoco Focus Group and e-mail data indi- reception from BP Amoco (or even city officials), the data
cated the City used its control over key Focus Group revealed that they believed (at least early on) that the
resources to punish CLEANUP (e.g., the City removed a regulators—those reportedly charged with protecting the
CLEANUP representative from the BP Amoco Focus public—would ensure the process would be fair.
Group (described below), name placards were withheld Overall, it appeared CLEANUP was compelled to par-
only for CLEANUP, meeting minutes were often e-mailed ticipate in BP Amoco Focus Group meetings despite some
to all but CLEANUP). overt conflict with City officials and despite the perception
Results from interview, e-mail and BP Amoco Focus that such meetings offered few or no benefits to the orga-
Group data revealed that CLEANUP members, and no one nization. The operation of the first dimension of social
else, routinely negatively experienced the processes that power suggests CLEANUP participated in the Focus Group
unfolded during these meetings. Further, it appeared that because their less advantageous bargaining resources (e.g.,
CLEANUP’s participation in the BP Amoco Focus no formal recognition as representative of ‘‘the people’’)
Group actually maximized the interests of more powerful did not allow them to successfully negotiate with regula-
entities. CLEANUP members insisted their involvement tors, as City officials had, about key issues in the ‘‘official’’
cost their group but benefited others. For example, Bud participatory realm.
Chappell argued the Focus Group merely provided a
means for regulators, BP Amoco, and the City to ‘‘get their Page numbers reflect transcript page numbers.

108 Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114

Illustration #2: ‘‘Unofficial’’ Processes (Bachrach and Baratz 1962, 1970). Whereas the first
dimension is revealed through overt actions by parties to
Because initially there was no ‘‘official’’ role for the public coerce certain forms of participation and thus prevail as
to participate, the CLEANUP organization extensively shown above, the second dimension is often hidden. It is
engaged in ‘‘unofficial’’ activities that vividly depict how often used by parties to constrain and channel participation
CLEANUP, BP Amoco and the City of Sugar Creek used in ways that yield benefits to their interests. Our multiple
instruments indicative of the first dimension of power to data sources converged to reveal numerous examples of the
get what each wanted. For example, findings indicated that manifestation of this dimension. Two illustrations show
CLEANUP successfully used their bargaining resources how the second dimension was used by various parties in
(e.g., status as residents; local, historical knowledge; media Sugar Creek.
attention; working collectively versus alone) to punish
regulators and BP Amoco for years of inaction at the site.
CLEANUP used their resources to get what they wanted— Illustration #1: CLEANUP and the BP Amoco Focus
increased agency attention to the site and public exposure Group
of the RCRA investigation’s flaws. Their success was
evidenced by EPA Region VII officials’ declaration of the Prior to the enactment of any ‘‘official’’ vehicles for public
site as a ‘‘top priority.’’ One CLEANUP member argued: participation, the nature of RCRA policy and regional EPA
and MNDR processes ultimately controlled who (beyond
...By trespassing on the property and finding blatant
BP Amoco) would participate ‘‘officially’’ in the investi-
problems...[and] bringing them out to the press...that
gation. As EPA’s Sugar Creek Project Manager stated:
brought embarrassment to the EPA and MDNR, but
‘‘We pretty much work with the responsible party—in this
also BP Amoco and somewhat the City... we did
case BP—and we direct them to do the investiga-
things...two government agencies [EPA and MDNR]
tion...that’s pretty darn standard’’ (R. Aston, November 20,
and the corporate entity should have done more than
2002). Regulators’ efforts to implement ‘‘official’’ vehicles
20 years ago [when the refinery closed in 1982]...we
might suggest barriers to participation were removed. For
put those [pictures] in front of everybody on the 6:00
instance, MDNR’s Public Affairs Specialist maintained:
news and all of a sudden this site became an issue
‘‘[The BP Amoco Focus Group] was a big thing as far as
with all of those entities (B. Haman, November 16,
getting...the whole community involved...[it] allow[ed] for
2002, pp. 1, 12).
a somewhat level playing field’’ (J. Gassner, November 15,
CLEANUP’s success at securing increased agency and 2002, p. 4). However, without attention to how instruments
public attention was reacted to by BP Amoco and the City; of the second dimension of power actually operated,
they used their resources to punish CLEANUP. Findings apparent removal of some barriers by regulators indicates
showed that BP Amoco began restricting access to resi- the opposite.
dential and on-site areas targeted by CLEANUP. They paid Although regulators implemented some ‘‘official’’
the City of Sugar Creek’s Chief of Police to patrol the vehicles, effective participation remained largely blocked.
inside of the refinery. City police began routinely stopping Attempts to access key documents relevant to the investi-
and questioning CLEANUP members when they walked gation were routinely met with obstacles (e.g., information
residential areas. To counter negative media attention repository not updated for several months). As one regu-
instigated by CLEANUP, BP Amoco offered tours of the lator put it: ‘‘To a certain extent, the communities are given
refinery to members of the public. However, only for the wrong impression...that they really do have more say
CLEANUP members, such tours were contingent upon than they actually do’’ (D. Jordan-Izaguirre, December 4,
signing a document that stated they would never again 2002, p. 9). These constraints signify barriers to full par-
trespass on the refinery, which they refused to do. ticipation and provide foundational evidence of the
operation of the second dimension from which a cascade of
events transpired.
Second Dimension of Power: Control of Participation Other findings indicated that regulators, the City, and BP
and Debate—Setting the Agenda Amoco routinely used ‘‘setting the agenda’’ tactics or the
‘‘rules of the game’’ to shape debate and erect barriers
The second dimension of power is generally understood as against CLEANUP’s participation. Perhaps the most
the ability to determine who participates and what is revealing evidence for the second dimension was that
debated in decision-making about key issues. The second which was absent from Focus Group agendas and minutes.
dimension of power often manifests through setting agen- For example, despite that the BP Amoco Focus Group
das or defining the terms and conditions of debate functioned as the primary ‘‘official’’ vehicle, until conflict

Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114 109

arose, there was no evidence of open discussion about key Thus, discussion about key issues related to how the
issues related to how the Group would operate. Such dis- Focus Group would function was stifled by the facilitator
cussion did not occur until the 10th Focus Group meeting and subverted by regulators. This was accomplished
when conflict arose about the City’s removal (via letter) of through agenda setting and use of the ‘‘rules of the
a CLEANUP Focus Group member because he had moved. game’’—institutional procedures such as exclusion of cer-
After decades of residing there, he and his wife moved a tain items from the agenda, meeting facilitation practices,
few miles outside of Sugar Creek due to health concerns; censored minutes, and claims of neutrality. The prime
particularly after being evacuated from their home for a function of the second dimension was accomplished—to
short time by regulators due to unidentified toxic fumes prohibit debate about key issues in the only ‘‘official’’
that had collected in their home. The following exchanges public forum. Interview and e-mail findings indicated that
were excluded from the meeting minutes and were revealed CLEANUP affiliates recognized this:
only through analysis of BP Amoco Focus Group video.
It doesn’t matter what [CLEANUP] bring[s] to the
They provide rich textual evidence for the manifestation of
Focus Group because the decisions are already made
the second dimension of power:
about what the EPA or MDNR is going to do, because
CLEANUP member to Focus Group:
they have already met with the polluter and made their
Who’s Focus Group is this? Is it the City’s? Is it decisions (L. Baker, November 4, 2002, p. 2).
EPA’s? Amoco’s? ...We don’t think the Mayor of
Sugar Creek...has any right or responsibility to tell Bud
Chappell that he’s no longer a member of this Group.
Illustration # 2: City of Sugar Creek and BP Amoco:
Focus Group facilitator (BP Amoco consultant) Information Control
The Focus Group does not have any kind of voting
Control over the only two public newsletters in Sugar
capacity to operate in that manner, so really the City
Creek, which regulators used to communicate with resi-
of Sugar Creek Board of Alderman is who appoin-
dents about the investigation, afforded the City and BP
ted...this Group to be a panel so the only thing I think
Amoco a near-monopoly of information disseminated to
we can do tonight is to report your comments
the public about the BP Amoco investigation. BP Amoco
[sic]...there’s not really anything that this group can
and the City were well positioned to shape participation
do because it’s not a formal group.
and the nature of debate based on the City’s status as the
CLEANUP member: most proximate civic institution in residents’ lives and BP
Amoco’s position as a familiar institution, historically
Well if it’s not a formal group who gave them the
steeped in local community life. Shaping of participation in
bylaw rights to do that?
the BP Amoco investigation was accomplished through
Focus Group facilitator: institutional control over what information about ‘‘official’’
participatory processes was made available to the public.
The City...formed this Group [and] there’s nothing
For example, the City’s newsletter, Sweet Talk, correctly
really more that we can talk about tonight on this
advertised only four of the fifteen Focus Group meetings in
issue because it’s not a group that would take a
the City calendar. BP Amoco’s newsletter, BP Newsclips,
vote...we don’t have any bylaws, that sort of thing.
never mentioned the meetings in advance. Overall, these
CLEANUP member: newsletters gave little indication that residents could
actively participate, with only a handful of cited opportu-
Well then how come you’re setting the rules? Why
nities for passive participation such as reviewing technical
don’t you let the group do that? [The City Adminis-
information in the library. In his interview, the Mayor of
trator] just said he’d like for [the Focus Group] to be
Sugar Creek noted that more regulators participated in
‘us’ [motions to committee members] so why don’t
Focus Group meetings than residents. In both newsletters,
we poll the group?
there was a palpable emphasis on BP Amoco’s cooperation
Focus Group facilitator: with regulatory authorities, a smooth-running investigation,
and the absence of health risk. For example, limitations of
That’s really the responsibility of the City...I think
the health studies were never presented, and the City and
we’re gonna move on to the next item of business.
BP Amoco published nothing about the nature and purpose
Video data also revealed that CLEANUP staged a of the CLEANUP organization.
‘‘walkout’’ after this exchange took place, but this too was In an e-mail to CLEANUP, the communications con-
absent from meeting minutes. sultant who wrote articles for Sweet Talk about the

110 Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114

investigation privately questioned the accuracy of what such a way that BP Amoco and the City were better
was published by the City: positioned to defend and promote their interests. The only
‘‘unofficial’’ participating entity in Sugar Creek,
...some community members do not want cancer risk
CLEANUP, thus appeared to have been very effectively
and other such subjects discussed in their newsletter.
shut out of much public debate by its adversaries’ control of
They think that these issues reflect negatively on the
agendas and manipulation of public information.
community...the major title of the page ‘Facilitating
Facts about Amoco’ has been misleading considering
the content of the articles. There is some question
Third Dimension of Power: Shaping Interests
about whether or not the City newsletter is the
appropriate avenue for educational articles about
Within the literature on social power, the third dimension is
environmental issues (February 20, 2001).
generally thought to manifest as the ability of the relatively
The ATSDR representative expressed similar concerns powerful to control and disseminate myths and ideology
and provided evidence that suggested the City allowed BP which are used to shape the thoughts, desires and interests
Amoco review and revise information that was published of the relatively powerless (Gaventa 1980; Lukes 1974;
in the City’s newsletter: Parenti 1978). Perhaps the most compelling evidence for
the manifestation of the third dimension was the ability of
I had written an article on the MS study and BP made
the City and BP Amoco to perpetuate the notion that the
changes to it...based on what they believed it was or
public had little or no reason to participate in the BP
should have I had real concerns with who got
Amoco investigation. Although this study cannot empiri-
to review the [Sweet Talk articles] and then who had
cally establish what non-participants thought, evidence for
the final say on how they were done, but that happened
the operation of the third dimension of power may explain
a couple of times and not just that once with BP
the low public participation in the investigation.
(D. Jordan-Izaguirre, December 4, 2002, pp. 4, 5)
Control of information by these entities was not limited to
their newsletters. Examination of BP Amoco Focus Group Illustration: No Need to Get Involved
minutes, controlled by the BP Amoco facilitator and City
officials, often misrepresented or omitted key statements. It appeared that the City and BP Amoco used their institu-
For example, regarding discussion about a brain tumor tional power to influence what Sugar Creek residents
study conducted by a University of Kansas Medical Center thought about the BP Amoco investigation. Our analyses
researcher, the minutes read only: ‘‘the study included showed that these entities attempted to shape what residents
information from Amoco,’’ while video footage revealed thought about the investigation by manipulating symbols
that the researcher indicated the company failed to provide of great significance to community members—the identity
additional employee health data despite his requests. of Sugar Creek as a ‘‘refinery town,’’ BP Amoco as ‘‘good
Emergence of the second dimension is again highlighted neighbor’’ and economic benefactor. For example, Amoco’s
by CLEANUP’s apparently unsuccessful struggle to prompt sponsorship of an annual public holiday event and their
regulatory authorities to publicly challenge the company donation of physical space for a new historical center to
and the City about manipulating information in a self- house historical artifacts related to the refinery and its
serving manner. Like other CLEANUP members, Janet workers was the subject of a full page advertisement in
Elliott asserted regulators’ claims of neutrality and their Sweet Talk at the peak of BP Amoco Focus Group activity:
inaction (read: non-decisions) regarding such made her
Please join us for a very special Holiday Open House
‘‘mad as hell’’ and suggested this demonstrated the regu-
to announce the new home of the Sugar Creek His-
latory agencies were ‘‘not for the people.’’ She said: ‘‘I feel
torical Center. The Amoco Center on Sterling will be
like we’re not protected the way that we think we’re sup-
the site...this is a major milestone for the commu-
posed to be...I just feel like EPA is bedded down with
nity’s dream to preserve and honor Sugar Creek’s
Amoco and that’s just not right’’ (November 22, 2002, p. 6).
past and another exciting step forward in the com-
The second dimension of power suggests regulators’ use of
munity’s future (December 2002, p. 6).
‘‘rules of the game’’ and claims of neutrality (read: non-
decisions) in this case were used to systematically benefit The Mayor’s comments are instructive for the study of
certain parties over others which necessarily disadvantaged how dimensions of power work together to prefigure
the latter. Their ‘‘neutrality’’ did in fact represent a posi- outcomes: ‘‘interest by the people of Sugar Creek is pro-
tion—one that served by default to legitimize BP Amoco portional to the amount of information that their City puts out
and City efforts. The result was that it shaped the debate in there to them’’ (S. Salva, November 18, 2002, p. 10).

Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114 111

Information about the investigation was often presented scholars have speculated about regarding how power might
to residents in conjunction with language and symbols that impact these processes (Gould 1991, 1992; Szasz and Meuser
emphasized BP Amoco as a familiar and ‘‘good neighbor.’’ 1997) and they illustrate how, through the explicit use of
Evidence for this was found in public newsletters, which social power constructs, such processes could be ‘‘disem-
referenced BP Amoco’s public relations efforts (e.g., powering’’ (Rich et al. 1995). It is the first study to
financial support of community events) and plans for systematically examine how social power manifested
‘‘economic revitalization’’ through reuse of the refinery through such processes. Further, it shows that multiple
property almost as frequently as the ‘‘smooth-running’’ sources of data can profitably be used to provide in-depth
environmental and health investigations. For example, in analysis of public participation in a local hazardous waste
Sweet Talk the 93 references to BP Amoco’s public relations dispute. Findings showed how previous researchers’ rec-
efforts numbered about the same as the 131 references to the ommendations for the facilitation of ‘‘successful’’ public
environmental and health investigations. Similar numbers participation at hazardous waste sites (Aronoff and Gunter
were found in BP Newsclips (n = 20 versus n = 18). When 1994; Carnes et al. 1998; Lowry 1998) were limited. Because
redevelopment and reuse of the refinery were discussed in these previous studies failed to explicitly account for power,
the newsletters, the words ‘‘sustainable’’ and ‘‘ecological’’ they did not address how citizen influence or ‘‘consensus’’
were used to communicate ‘‘bottom line’’ objectives to could be manipulated via control of resources, barriers to
‘‘provide quality employment opportunities while preserv- participation, agenda setting or control of conceptions
ing the environment.’’ Both the City and BP Amoco about what is possible in terms of issues or participation.
emphasized BP Amoco’s cooperation with regulators, a The manipulation and determination of interests in Sugar
smooth running RCRA investigation, and the absence of Creek was particularly evident given the cumulative and
health risk. They misrepresented or withheld key informa- transactive effects of all three dimensions of social power
tion from public newsletters (e.g., health study limitations) (Gaventa 1980; Lukes 1974). In short, those most successful
that might have reflected badly on the City and BP Amoco— at exercising power characteristic of the first and second
or might have raised questions among the public. dimensions (i.e., superior bargaining resources, control of
Further, it appeared the City and BP attempted to dis- participation and nature of debate) were also better posi-
credit CLEANUP by refusing to disclose the nature or tioned to shape the interests of others in such a way that the
purpose of the organization in public newsletters. Neither interests of the dominant parties were maximized. We agree
newsletter provided residents with information about with Lukes (1974) who argued that power is most success-
CLEANUP, thereby possibly constraining consideration of fully exercised when one has the ability not only to get others
participation. Findings from BP Amoco Focus Group data to do what one wants them to do, but also to get others to
revealed much the same. Discrepancies between meeting view community issues the way one wants them to. The
minutes and video footage indicated that regulators’ com- perception of what is possible or imperative is thought to
ments about how CLEANUP prompted various regulatory be a key feature of the third dimension of power, manipu-
actions (e.g., declaration as ‘‘top priority’’ site for the lation of ‘‘consensus,’’ and the development of ‘‘critical
region) were often excluded from the meeting record. This consciousness’’ (Freire 1968; Gaventa 1980; Horton and
suggests both institutions worked through apparent inaction Freire 1990; Lukes 1974; Parenti 1978). For those who did
to undermine the legitimacy of CLEANUP and to position not participate in the Sugar Creek disputes, such manipu-
this organization at the margins of debate. To do so, it was lation might have been determinative. This is consistent with
not necessary to overtly criticize the organization in these what Lukes (1974) and Gaventa (1980) predicted about the
newsletters. The roots of this institutional power are not cumulative nature of dimensions of power. Perhaps the
difficult to establish. The company built the City of Sugar most persuasive evidence for the manifestation of the third
Creek and was largely responsible for its economic position. dimension was the ability of the City and BP Amoco to
More important to the third dimension of power is what perpetuate the notion that the public had little or no reason to
appeared to be a collective internalization of these pre- participate in the BP Amoco investigation.
sumptions that resulted in filtering the information through Our study showed that the City and BP Amoco
the favorable optics of the BP Amoco—City orientation. successfully manipulated language and symbols meaningful
to the Sugar Creek community while simultaneously
ignoring CLEANUP. The latent message was that at
Conclusions best CLEANUP was perceived by these institutions as
insignificant and at worst that it was disloyal to the com-
This research shows how three dimensions of power can be munity. It explains why CLEANUP emerged as the only
used to understand participatory process at hazardous waste organization to oppose the status quo related to the inves-
sites. Our data provide empirical evidence for what other tigation and why the larger community did not publicly react

112 Am J Community Psychol (2008) 41:99–114

to the marginalization of their neighbors. Gould (1991, Kelly 1966, 1987; Seidman 1988; Trickett 1984), with little
1992) illustrated how industrial polluters (via social, polit- or no opportunity for effective participation in the RCRA
ical and economic resources) could generate self-serving process, some members of the Sugar Creek public adapted
public opinion in host communities. He argued these entities by forming CLEANUP to defend and promote their inter-
often emphasized their role in the local economy and its role ests. In fact, our data suggested that CLEANUP’s influence
in the ‘‘collective good.’’ Those who expressed or acted on the investigation in this case appeared to be most
upon views counter to this notion were discredited as effective through collective engagement in ‘‘unofficial’’
‘‘anti-community’’ or ‘‘anti-economy.’’ Gould’s analyses processes. However, influence is relative and does not
are consistent with the emergence of the third dimension equate to true decision-making power. To facilitate genu-
of social power as it appeared to unfold in Sugar Creek. ine participation, RCRA policy and other similar hazardous
waste policies must be altered to facilitate more than
marginal community influence. This would require col-
Limitations of Study lective action at a national level and would almost certainly
be resisted by those whose interests would not be served by
This qualitative community case study, which emphasized such a change. This said, the three-dimensional view of
depth versus breadth, allowed for the collection and anal- social power warns that merely changing public partici-
ysis of descriptive data from multiple sources. The open- pation policy to require ‘‘true democratic decision-
ended nature of the interview method was employed to making’’ will not ensure all people or issues will have
facilitate the inclusion of experiences common across and access to the decision-making arena, nor that people will
unique to individuals. Combined with analyses of multiple recognize that participation is needed or possible. Finding
data sources our study accommodated explorations of solutions to the toxic contamination of neighborhoods that
patterns across data sets. Findings that emerged across data meaningfully and effectively involve all relevant parties
sources from different parties suggest good convergence, will require more than incremental policy change.
but unknown reliability of qualitative analyses may be seen Generally, the published discourse in community psy-
as a limitation of this study, as only the first author engaged chology has reflected little dialogue about social power.
in analyses. However, as is common in qualitative research, However, several community psychologists have called for
interview narratives and other texts became redundant, or more discussion about how power operates in community
came ‘‘full circle.’’ This suggests that a fairly representa- life and have argued that such would enhance community
tive story emerged here (Lincoln and Guba 1998). As with psychology theory, research and action (e.g., Angelique
all qualitative research, sample size and the sample’s rep- and Culley 2007; Prilleltensky 2001, 2003; Speer and
resentativeness (with respect to interview data) might be Hughey 1995; Speer et al. 2003). This study provides one
viewed as a limitation. Moreover, there are many hazard- example of how we might move forward in our discussion
ous waste sites, and one can only speculate about the extent about power. Further, public participation in hazardous
to which participants’ experiences corroborate or conflict waste disputes has significant implications for research that
with others’ experiences of similar processes. The gener- addresses power and social change processes. In particular,
alizability of our findings is limited as they did not include future research about participation in hazardous waste
interviews with members of the public who did not par- (and other) disputes would be well served by exploration of
ticipate in the BP Amoco investigation. As Gaventa (1980) the extent to which organizations understand and employ
demonstrated in his study of non-participation in Appala- instruments of power (Peterson and Zimmerman 2004;
chia, this would likely have yielded important information Speer et al. 2003). Research that moves away from
about public participation in the BP Amoco investigation individual, fault-focused approaches to systems analyses
and in particular, how ‘‘official’’ vehicles were perceived enlarges the scope of potential directions for change. The
by the public. Balancing this limitation is the focus of our events that unfolded in Sugar Creek, and which occur in
study on those who were extensively involved in partici- other communities like it, have much to teach community
patory processes related to the BP Amoco investigation, researchers about these complex and layered relationships.
rather than those who were not.

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