Community science, also called “citizen science,” refers to public participation in the scientific process, especially to achieve community (rather than institutional) goals.
For communities facing environmental issues, collecting scientific data can be a powerful tool to investigate problems and document environmental and health impacts on communities.
Community science activities include asking questions, recording observations, collecting data, interpreting data, and distributing information for educational purposes or to address community concerns. Community scientists can contribute to existing projects or design their own projects based on the needs of their communities. Whether participating in existing projects or starting new ones, community scientists can fill information gaps and use evidence to meaningfully address environmental injustice.
Community scientists can use information they’ve collected in various ways, such as persuading an agency to further investigate a problem or supporting a lawsuit against a polluting facility. Though community science information can be used to support a lawsuit, there are many opportunities to use community-gathered information and environmental laws that do not require going to court.
This chapter provides general guidelines for creating and implementing an effective community science project, helpful considerations to keep in mind, and additional resources to support and inform your efforts.
Contribute to Existing Projects
Sometimes community science activities by members of the public are facilitated by professional scientists, organizations, or government agencies. For example, through the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper’s ongoing Neighborhood Water Watch program, communities can collect water samples from designated areas all over north Georgia and bring them to the Riverkeeper for analysis. If any threats to public health or the environment are identified, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper also works with neighborhoods and local governments to address the threats. Taking advantage of these existing programs can help community scientists effectively achieve community goals with limited resources. For a list of possible resources and ongoing projects, see Appendix E: Community Science Resources.
Design Your Own Project
Often, existing projects will have a specific focus that might not directly line up with the needs of your community. In that case, you can design and initiate a project to achieve your specific goals. This chapter will discuss some important considerations when starting your own project as well as resources that provide additional guidance.
Community Science in Action:
Clean Air Carolina AirKeepers Program
The Historic West End is a 150-year old community in Charlotte, North Carolina and is home to some of the city’s oldest African American communities.The Historic West End has also been disproportionately impacted by air pollution from highway construction and industrial sources.
Partnering with Clean Air Carolina, community scientists used portable air sensors to monitor air pollution levels in their neighborhoods. Residents measured particle pollution at different locations throughout their neighborhoods and used this data to advocate for more equitable policy decisions to address pollution.
In May of 2019, the Board of County Commissioners invited residents to present their air quality data. After communities presented their data, the commission established an official air monitoring station in the Historic West End. Now residents are advocating for the creation of a West End Green District to reduce neighborhood air pollution.
To learn more about AirKeepers in the Historic West End, visit their Story Map.
Designing and Implementing Community
1. Problem Identification and Project Focus
You are probably reading this guide because you have already identified an environmental problem or area of concern in your neighborhood. Maybe you want to protect an existing community asset (like a waterway or community garden) that might be threatened. Or maybe a new industrial facility is being sited nearby, and you want to know what legal tools you can use to protect your community. This section will help you take the problem you have identified and frame in terms of a specific project focus. For instance, if you want to protect an existing community asset, your project focus might be monitoring that resource to ensure it remains healthy. Below are some examples of project focuses that may help you target your efforts so you can get the most effective results with limited resources. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and community science projects can take many forms to address many different issues.
Examples of Project Focuses
Monitor and Protect Environmental Assets
Environmental assets might include clean air, clean water, healthy soils, green spaces, community gardens, or wildlife areas. To protect neighborhood assets, you may seek to monitor their health so that you can quickly identify any problems. This may be especially relevant if a new source of pollution moves into your community, or after a change in regulations, laws, or permit requirements alters the standards for polluters in your area.
Verify Pollution from a Known Pollutant Source
If there is a known pollutant source in your area, like a factory or sewage treatment plant, it will be operating under a permit to pollute and must comply with certain self-reporting requirements. Check Knowing What’s in Your Neighborhood for more about locating permits for facilities in your neighborhood. Using community science, you can check to see if a polluter is accurately self-reporting its pollution by comparing your findings to the polluter’s reports. You can also seek to verify that the polluter is not exceeding its own permit requirements.
Identify A Pollution Source
Perhaps you have identified a pollutant in your neighborhood, but you don’t know its source. For instance, you know there is an odor, or maybe you have observed an environmental problem like dying plants, but you are not sure of the precise cause.
Fix Existing Environmental Problems
Maybe you already know what the problem is and what is causing it. In that case, your project focus may be fixing the problem itself. Perhaps you want to improve air or water quality. Or maybe you want to decrease the health effects or risks associated with exposure to a known pollutant. For example, in an area with lead-contaminated soil, you might seek to test the soil to raise awareness among residents, understand the extent of the contamination, and facilitate fair and effective cleanup efforts.
As you narrow down your project focus, you should also determine which specific pollutants you will be gathering information about.
One way to identify relevant pollutants is to research available information, such as government websites, internet sources, or news articles. Many pollutants are associated with certain types of sources. If your project is focused on a nearby or proposed industrial facility or other pollution source, you can determine which pollutants are associated with that activity. For a list of common pollutants and sources, see Tables 1.1 and 1.2 in Where You Live Affects Your Health.
2. Setting a Goal: How Will This Information Be Used?
This section will provide some examples of ways to use community science data. It is important to note that legal strategies are not limited to filing a lawsuit.
Many environmental protection laws and environmental agency regulations include specific procedures to encourage and even require community participation. The information you gather can be used to stimulate agency action, inform new regulations, or spur agency enforcement against a polluter—without you ever being involved in a lawsuit. Additionally, community science can be a powerful tool to raise public awareness about environmental issues and to influence local officials.
This section will also help you decide what procedures you may need to use when collecting information. You may need to adhere to different quality standards depending on howthe information will be used and who will be using the information. For example, if you plan to use information for educational purposes for the public or to push for certain policy decisions by elected officials, there are no formal quality standards for the information. On the other hand, if you want to use your data in a court case or provide it to a government agency to rely upon in administrative actions, it must satisfy certain legally imposed quality standards.
Understanding these quality constraints at the beginning of a project can help community scientists design more effective projects that have a clear end-goal. And of course, regardless of formal standards, the quality of community science data will affect its persuasiveness and credibility to decisionmakers.
Because there may be quality standards for certain uses of information, community scientists should consider partnering with academic researchers, non-profits, or other experts to select tools and design projects. For possible resources to help connect you with experts, see Appendix E.
In addition, community scientists should attempt to reach out to agencies at the outset of their projects. Though it may be challenging or frustrating to connect with agency staff, establishing contact early will only increase the chance that the data you collect will be utilized by the agency later on. See Environmental Agencies in Georgia: Who’s Who? for more information about state agencies and Appendix B for agency contact information.
Possible Goals for Community Science Projects
Education and Advocacy
You may want to use community science data to raise awareness about an issue or to foster further engagement from the community. More broadly, information generated through community science can help to raise public awareness about an environmental health issue through media attention. You can also share your findings with local elected officials and representatives to advocate for changes to existing laws or policy decisions. Some opportunities include:
Zoning decisions: Public participation is required whenever a zoning decision is made. At minimum, local governments must publicize and hold a public hearing on all proposed zoning decisions. See Land Use Planning and Zoning for more information about zoning.
Land use plans: Each local government in Georgia is required to develop a comprehensive plan that governs future land use. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs has created rules entitled “Standards and Procedures for Local Comprehensive Planning: Local Planning Requirements” that mandate public hearings and participation during the preparation of a comprehensive plan. See Land Use Planning and Zoning for more information about the planning process.
Landfill siting: Prior to selecting a site for a municipal solid waste facility, local governments must publicize and hold a public meeting to discuss site selection. See Solid Waste Management and Landfill Permitting for more information about the landfill siting process.
Submitting Public Comments
Many environmental statutes are written broadly and require the agencies charged with implementing those laws to interpret the language. One way they do this is through a process called notice and comment rulemaking, wherein agencies issue rules that interpret and enforce the laws.
If an agency has issued a proposed rule relevant to your community, you can provide the agency with information through public comments to influence the development of the final regulation. In addition to requirements imposed on all notice and comment rulemaking, some laws and agency regulations specifically require agencies to solicit public participation before making major decisions that will impact the environment.
One of the strongest tools for public participation in environmental law is the National Environmental Policy Act, discussed in The National Environmental Policy Act. Other opportunities for submitting public comments include comments on proposed permits, licenses, and enforcement decisions. For guidelines on submitting public comments, see Submitting Public Comments.
If you submit scientific data as part of a public comment, and the agency relies on that information as the basis for its decision, then the information must meet certain quality standards.
Agency actions are subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). That means that if a federal agency decision is challenged in court, the decision will be overturned if it is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law” or “unsupported by substantial evidence.” Generally, courts give a high degree of deference to agency decisions, but this requirement means that your information must meet certain credibility standards if an agency is to rely upon it in official decisions.
Rulemaking is one way federal and state agencies interpret and enforce environmental laws. If there is not currently a proposed rule, or if you think a current rule is outdated or insufficient, you can petition the agency to adopt a new one. Under the APA and Georgia law, federal and state agencies must give interested persons the right to petition for the issuance, amendment, or repeal of a rule. The EPA provides previously submitted petitions on its website.
Solicit Agency Enforcement Action
When a polluter is in violation of the law and the government takes action to force it to stop violating the law, that process is called enforcement. You may want to provide information to a government agency in order to spur an enforcement action against a polluter. For instance, the government may bring a criminal prosecution in federal or state court or pursue enforcement through an administrative adjudication.
Again, if the agency relies on your information, it will need to comply with certain quality standards (see the Lawsuit section below).
Stimulate Independent Agency Action
You can also use community science data as a tool to stimulate future independent agency action. For instance, you might collect data on elevated pollutant levels in a waterway and corresponding exceedances in a polluter’s self-reported permit allowances and pass that information on to the agency.
Once you have called attention to the problem, the agency may then take independent action to verify your information or gather its own information. Then, based on its own independent investigation, the agency might bring an enforcement action against the polluter.
Many environmental laws create affirmative obligations on agencies to solicit public participation and consider public comments. Additionally, action taken by agencies to independently verify community science data may help address quality standards that might otherwise prevent the use of community science data in certain contexts.
File a Lawsuit
Finally, you might use your data to support a citizen suit against a polluter. Many environmental laws include citizen suit provisions, which allow for private citizens to bring lawsuits directly against a polluter to enforce the law. Essentially, private citizens step into the shoes of the government to enforce environmental laws through the courts. For more information on citizen suits generally, see Citizen Suits.
If scientific or technical data gathered by community scientists is offered in court, it must satisfy the requirements for expert testimony under the Federal Rules of Evidence and applicable case law.
These requirements relate to both the method of data collection as well as the method of interpreting results. Though there is nothing inherently disqualifying about community science data, to be admissible in court it will need to be adequately supported by a qualified expert.
There are a few overarching requirements, including the need to record how and when samples are collected and what methods were used to interpret data. These basic concepts are covered in Part 5: Gathering New Information below, which discusses procedures for gathering new information. For an in-depth discussion of using community science in lawsuits, see Harvard’s Citizen Science Manual Supplement, Using Citizen Science Data in Litigation.
Importantly, not every piece of information collected by community scientists will constitute “scientific” evidence in court.
In court, there are more stringent requirements for “expert testimony” made by a qualified person about a scientific or technical issue. But these more stringent requirements do not apply to non-expert testimony that does not require technical or specialized knowledge.
For example, photos or personal observations about bad smells at a facility would not need to be introduced via expert testimony, because they are testimony about what you directly experienced with your own senses. However, evidence about the quantity of certain possible pollutants that could be causing the smell would likely need to be introduced in court via expert testimony.
3. Survey Existing Information
As mentioned in the overview of community science, one way to participate in community science is by contributing to an existing project. Even if there is not an ongoing project that directly matches your project focus, there is still a wealth of existing publicly available information that may help you narrow your research. By exploring available resources, you may also be able to connect with other individuals or organizations, whether in your neighborhood or more broadly, who are interested in solving similar problems.
Reaching out to government agencies at this stage may help you identify existing sources of information relevant to your project. Additionally, non-profits, universities, and other experts may be able to provide helpful information. For resources on existing community science projects and programs that help connect communities with expert facilitators, see Appendix E: Community Science Resources.
For information concerning specific pollutants or environmental problems in your area, you can find information through the media, academic research, and state and federal agency websites.
If you have identified a specific pollutant in your community, you can check agency websites to learn about its health effects and how to limit potential health risks.
If you have identified a specific pollutant source, you may also want to investigate that facility. Information regarding a facility’s permitting, compliance history, and enforcement actions is available through the EPA or the EPD websites.
When designing and implementing your project, there are important potential liabilities to be aware of and avoid:
In Georgia, you commit trespass when you go onto someone else’s property without permission. If you are collecting data on public land or on private property with permission, you will not be trespassing.
If you will be entering or crossing private land to collect samples, you can avoid potential trespass claims by seeking permission from the owner – preferably permission in writing. If you enter private property without permission, you may be criminally or civilly liable for trespassing.
If you intend to use drones to take photographs or collect data during your community science project, there are some restrictions you should keep in mind.
First, there are certain federal drone laws that apply in every state. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is the federal agency that regulates drones, has different standards for commercial and recreational use. For community scientists, as long as you are not being paid to operate a drone, you should not need to comply with commercial standards. If you are flying as a recreational user, there is a different set of rules. One key rule is that if your drone weighs 0.55 pounds (250 grams) or more, you must register it with the FAA.
Second, Georgia has some additional rules concerning drone use. According to Georgia Department of Natural Resources Park Rules and Regulations, drone use and operation is prohibited in Georgia’s state parks and historic sites.
A few counties in Georgia have their own local ordinances that regulate drone use as well. For instance, the City of Augusta prohibits drone use in populated areas in Richmond County (outside of designated model aircraft fields) without prior authorization from both the FAA and the Augusta, Georgia Commission. Check with the county and city you live in to see if there are other rules you should know about regarding drone use.
If your project area includes residential areas, you should be aware of privacy laws, especially if your project involves taking photos or videos. Georgia law recognizes four categories of privacy claims:
Intrusion into private affairs
Public disclosure of private facts
False light publicity and invasion of privacy
Appropriation of name or likeness
Likely, the first category is going to be the most relevant to community science activities. Intrusion into private affairs involves “an unreasonable and highly offensive intrusion upon another’s seclusion.” In Georgia, it is unlawful to photograph or record the activities of another which occur in private and out of public view, whether or not that information is published.
Generally, you should be aware of privacy issues whenever you are collecting information in residential areas. You should let community members know about your project and its goals and be mindful of what photographs you take and make publicly available. Unless you are in a public place, it is best to avoid taking pictures that include individuals, especially children. If you are using volunteers to gather data, you should communicate privacy concerns to volunteers as well and make sure that they understand how the information they gather will be used and whether it will be publicly available.
In Georgia, a person commits the crime of stalking when they “follow, place under surveillance, or contact another person . . . without the consent of the other person for the purpose of harassing and intimidating the other person.” Because stalking in Georgia requires a specific intent to harass or intimidate, community scientists generally will not be liable for stalking.
In addition to trespass, Georgia law prohibits certain activities at animal and crop facilities. These facilities include the premises where animals and crops are actually located as well as any “office, building, or structure where records, documents, or electronic data” relating to research, testing, or production of the crops and animals are kept.
The law states: “A person commits an offense if, without the consent of the owner, the person . . . enters or remains on an animal [or crop] facility with the intent to disrupt or damage the enterprise conducted at the . . . facility” and the person had notice that entry was forbidden.
Generally, as with trespass, you should get permission from private property owners before entering agricultural property.
Loitering laws are likely only relevant if you are already violating some separate criminal law. Criminal loitering statutes cannot simply criminalize a person’s presence in an area without some other criminal element. If you are not violating some other criminal law, you are unlikely to be liable for loitering.
Scientific Collecting Permits
Georgia also prohibits the collection of wildlife for scientific purposes without a permit:
“It shall be unlawful for any person to take, possess, or transport any of the wildlife of this state, or the plumage, skin, or body thereof, or the nests or eggs of the same for scientific purposes without obtaining a scientific collecting permit.”
If you are collecting samples, make sure to only collect water or soil samples, not living creatures.
5. Gathering New Information
Hopefully, all the information you needed to meet your project goal is already available through other sources. But more likely, your community science project will require you to gather your own information that is not already available from some other source.
As discussed above, the use of community science information may be limited based on quality standards. Even where no formal standards exist, higher-quality information will have the most credibility and be the most effective for achieving your project goals.
However, any information you generate may still help to stimulate independent agency action or raise public awareness about an issue. Even if you cannot comply with the most strict and rigorous sampling and quality control procedures, your work as a community scientist can still have an impact on decision-making.
Quality Assurance Project Plans
An important way to keep track of your data collection methods and improve the credibility of your data is to develop a Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP).
A QAPP is a written document prepared at the start of your project that outlines the methods you will use to collect and analyze data. Not only does a QAPP improve your data’s credibility, but it also provides a valuable resource to volunteers participating in data collection and to others who may want to use or add to your work in the future.
Data collected in accordance with written and standardized procedures, such as those in a QAPP, is also more likely to be accepted as evidence that can be used in a lawsuit.
There are five main indicators that are used to assess data quality.
Before preparing your QAPP or collecting samples, you should understand these concepts and how they relate to the quality of your data.
(1) Precision refers to the degree of agreement, or similarity, among multiple measurements of the same characteristic on either a) the same sample, or b) multiple samples collected at the same time and place. A high degree of precision indicates that your methods are consistent and can be reproduced, which indicates higher-quality information.
(2) Accuracy measures how close your results are to a true or expected value.Accuracy can be determined by analyzing a sample with a known value and comparing your results to that known value.
(3) Representativeness is the extent to which samples collected at a particular site or particular time actually represent the true environmental conditions being evaluated. If you do not collect representative samples, your results may be biased because they do not reflect the actual conditions you are trying to measure. For example, if you are sampling a stream for water pollution, you probably do not want to collect a single sample directly below a pipe outfall, because this sample would not be representative of the entire stream; consider collecting samples both upstream and downstream of the pipe. Similarly, a sample collected after heavy rainfall could be representative of the condition of the stream after heavy rain, but not be representative of the stream in other weather conditions.
(4) Completeness can be determined by comparing the number of samples you planned to collect with the number of valid samples you actually collected. In general, you should make an effort to collect more samples than you think will actually be necessary. Having extra samples can also increase the representativeness of your data.
(5) Comparability refers to the extent to which data can be compared either a) between different samples in the same project, or b) between different projects. The best way to ensure comparability is to use standardized methods of sampling and analysis and to record your methods.
You should make your QAPP as detailed as possible.
Regardless of how in-depth your QAPP is, there are a few key practices that you should follow and record in your project plan.
Always record your procedures, the date and time of the activity, and the name of the person conducting them.
Even if the data you collect is qualitative rather than quantitative, you should record all observations in as much detail as possible.
You should also keep a written record of who has possession of samples if they need to be stored or transported to different locations.
Community science projects vary widely in both project focus and specific scientific procedures used. For that reason, this guide does not provide a comprehensive methodology for different community science projects. Instead, it highlights some general questions you should ask as you plan your project and provides additional resources that cover technical suggestions in more detail. Look at the following list of potential questions to help you design your project, and then investigate the resources listed after it to narrow down the specifics of how you will collect, analyze, and use information. Once you have gathered this information, prepare a project plan that outlines your project goals and procedures.
Step One: Collecting Samples
What are you sampling? (air, water, soil, etc.)
What are you looking for in the samples? (You might be looking for a specific pollutant such as lead, or any pollutants being discharged by a nearby facility.)
How will you collect samples? Will you use any special equipment? Make sure that you always use clean and sterilized equipment and containers for your sample collection.
How will you document your sample collection procedures? You should always record the location and time samples were taken and the name of the person who took the sample, as well as any other important characteristics. Make sure to label all your samples.
If you are analyzing samples at a secondary location, how will you store and transport samples from the field to that location? You should make a plan for how you will store and transport samples to prevent contamination and be sure to keep track of who is in possession of the samples at each stage throughout the process. Maintaining records for chain-of-custody information is also important for authentication if your data is used in a lawsuit later on.
What procedures do EPA or EPD recommend for this type of sampling? If you are using an agency-approved method, specify what method it is. Or if you are using a different protocol, specify how it is different from an official agency protocol.
Step Two: Analysis
How will you analyze samples?
Where will you analyze samples? Whether your analysis occurs in the field or in a laboratory, you should record each step in the process. Even if you are analyzing samples in the field or without specialized equipment, you still need to record the methods you use.
What equipment will you use to analyze samples? (There may be a local organization, school or university that provides resources for community scientists.) Check EPA and EPD online resources for approved instruments and procedures. If you are using special equipment to test for certain pollutants, you should be aware of any limitations that tool might have. For instance, many instruments will only detect pollutants within a certain range. Knowing that detection range will help you evaluate the reliability of your analysis.
How will you document your results and procedures?
What methods do EPA or EPD recommend for this type of analysis? If your procedure differs from an agency approved method, record how it is different.
Step Three: Interpretation
What methods will you use to interpret the results of your analysis?
Will you interpret the data yourself, or will you seek assistance from experts?
What kind of expert would be best able to interpret your data? Though you may be able to interpret some data yourself, having an expert interpretation will improve the quality and credibility of the data. Possible resources for expert assistance might include local universities, non-profit organizations, or companies.
How will you document your procedures and conclusions?
What methods do EPA or EPD recommend for interpreting this type of data?
Collecting, Analyzing, and Using Scientific Data
Additionally, the EPA provides detailed resources for evaluating information credibility and for designing QAPPs. Any project that seeks funding from the EPA must have an EPA-approved QAPP before collecting samples. Even if you are not seeking EPA funding, having a QAPP will improve your data credibility, especially if you plan to provide it to agencies. EPA resources include:
Appendix E of the EJ Green Book also provides descriptions of and links to numerous additional community science resources. These resources may be helpful in designing your data collection and interpretation methods as well as keeping track of information, collaborating with other community members, and connecting you with experts or other facilitators.
6. Meeting Your Goal
After you have identified a project focus, surveyed existing information, and collected and analyzed new data, the final step is using your newly generated data to meet your project goal.
What you do with your community science data depends on the goal you identified at the beginning of your project, but generally you will want to compile your data and provide it to someone else — whether it be an agency, an elected official, an attorney, the media, or other residents in your community. You may also want to provide your data to a polluter to put them on notice of the violations you have documented.
Depending on who your intended audience is, you may want to format or structure your information in a certain way to make it most effective.
For instance, if you are targeting a non-technical audience, try to use plain language or visual aids, such as graphs, to communicate quantitative results. If you are planning to submit your information to an agency or use it in a court proceeding, there may be formatting requirements for how information is presented.
Though you may have had a very specific goal in mind at the outset of your project, consider other possible uses for your information. Additionally, you may want to consider making your data and procedures publicly available as a resource for others who might build on your work or start their own community science projects.
What Does Success Mean?
For six decades, primarily Black areas of DeKalb County have been suffering from sewage spills into the South River.
Though the 1972 Clean Water Act’s purpose is to restore and maintain the integrity of the Nation’s waters, sewage spills have been impacting DeKalb County’s streams as far back as the late 1800s. Until the late 1990s, the EPA, EPD, and DeKalb County did almost nothing to fix the problem. These powerful actors get to decide which areas and groups to prioritize in their decision making, and they know that it takes education, perseverance, and enormous effort to effectively advocate against them so usually they can simply wait until advocates wear themselves out.
Dr. Jacqueline Echols, Board President of South River Watershed Alliance (SRWA) has been fighting with these powers for ten years. Enactment of the Clean Water Act has not led to a cleaner South River, and neither have numerous unsuccessful EPD consent orders issued in the late 1990s aimed at addressing the problem. In 2006 DeKalb County discharged ten million gallons of raw sewage into Snapfinger Creek, about 200 yards from its confluence with the South River. Four years later, in 2010, the EPA and EPD sued DeKalb County for Clean Water Act violations. This lawsuit led to a federal consent decree which was signed by U.S. District Judge William Duffey Jr. in December 2011. This legal action set a ten-year deadline for the County to eliminate the spills in priority areas.
The 2011 Consent Decree divided the County into priority areas and nonpriority areas. The Consent Decree established a deadline of June 2020 to eliminate spills in the priority areas but did not establish a deadline to eliminate spills in nonpriority areas. However, spills in nonpriority areas, including the location of the Snapfinger Wastewater Treatment Facility (4124 Flakes Mill Road), discharge millions of gallons of sewage into the South River with each heavy rain. Nonpriority areas are constant sources of pollution with no deadline for cleanup. In addition, two-thirds of DeKalb County is designated as nonpriority and this area accounted for more than half of the sewage spills that have occurred in the county since 2014. The priority area only covers 838 miles of the county’s 2,600 miles of sewer pipe, leaving 1,762 miles of sewer infrastructure outside the authority of the Consent Decree’s deadlines.
The 2010 Consent Decree was modified in October 2020; however, this modification did not create a deadline for the cleanup of the nonpriority area. Without coverage under a Consent Decree-driven deadline, these locations and their inhabitants have no guarantee that they will ever be free of the pollution and public health threats that come with sewage spills—even though the Clean Water Act’s purpose is to restore and maintain the integrity of the nation’s waters. And despite this fact, EPA Region 4 Acting Deputy Administrator John Blevin said the modification “presents the best path forward to eliminating sanitary sewer overflows in the County.”
When environmental laws and their enforcers fail, at least individuals and communities can get involved.
That’s what Dr. Jackie Echols and SRWA have done. SRWA was founded in 2000 to prevent the expansion of Live Oak Landfill in DeKalb County. In 2011, the organization was allowed by the court to intervene into the EPA lawsuit against DeKalb County. This intervention provided the only access for the public to monitor implementation of the Consent Decree and push for stronger enforcement.
In 2019 SRWA filed a Clean Water Act citizen suit alleging that EPD and EPA were not diligently prosecuting the case against DeKalb County. This led to an August 2020 ruling by U.S. District Judge Steven Grimberg in which the judge sided with DeKalb County, EPD, and EPA and decided EPA was diligently prosecuting the case. Judge Grimberg relied on a 2007 Oklahoma federal court ruling to conclude the omission of a deadline for the nonpriority areas and their inhabitants was a “negotiation concession” by EPA and GA EPD to reach agreement on the Consent Decree.
Dr. Echols and SRWA are appealing Judge Grimberg’s ruling against EPD and EPA in the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
Though the battle over whether DeKalb County’s nonpriority areas will receive a deadline and whether DeKalb County will finally clean up its act is ongoing, the SRWA has had many successes. Here are three:
First, SRWA’s intervention into the 2010 Consent Decree was a success because this intervention enabled the organization to actively monitor implementation through periodic meetings with EPA, EPD, and the Department of Justice.
Second, even a weak consent decree such as the 2010 action is better than no consent decree because consent decrees are relatively rare.
Third, SRWA has sustained its effort for a long time and drawn attention to its cause. We often don’t notice progress until the moment of big change, but a big change requires constant, sustained, quiet, often thankless effort.
As Dr. Echols says, “Being relentless is the only thing EPA, EPD, and DeKalb County understand. Success is being a constant pain in their ass.”
By that metric, Dr. Echols and SRWA have been immensely successful.
 Due to pre-existing bias and an institutional failure to effectively integrate community science into policymaking decisions, many policymakers generally view community science with skepticism. Annie E. Brett, Putting the Public on Trial: Can Citizen Science Data Be used in Litigation and Regulation?, 28 Vill. Env’t L.J. 163, 175 (2017). This creates an uphill battle for community scientists to persuade policymakers.
 George Wyeth et al., The Impact of Citizen Environmental Science in the United States, 49 Env’t L. Rep. 10244-47 (2019).
Getting Started, Federal Aviation Administration, https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/ (last visited April 20, 2020). To fly a drone as a commercial drone pilot, you must comply with FAA’s Part 107 Small UAS Rule. The Federal Aviation Administration requires you to obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate, which includes registration, a knowledge test, and a fee. Certified Remote Pilots including Commercial Operators, FAA, https://www.faa.gov/uas/commercial_operators/.
Georgia Drone Regulations, UAV Coach, https://uavcoach.com/drone-laws-georgia/. Other examples include the City of Conyers, which prohibits the use of drones in the city horse park or within the boundaries of the Cherokee Golf Course. Id. Cherokee County limits drone use to areas specifically designated for drones. Id.
 Generally, observations in a public place, including outside someone’s home, are not intrusions upon the person’s privacy. Summers v. Bailey, 55 F.3d 1564, 1566 (11th Cir. 1995); see also U.S. v. Santana, 427 U.S. 38, 42 (1976) (no expectation of privacy when an individual is “exposed to public view, speech, hearing, and touch as if she had been standing completely outside her house”).