Chemical & Engineering News,
May 29, 1995

Copyright © 1995 by the American Chemical Society.

Chemist preaches and practices community outreach

He's a chemist - a 40-year member of the American Chemical Society - and an environmentalist - a four-decade member of the Audubon Society. A former DuPont plant manager, he now directs that company's community awareness and emergency response and industry outreach program. And as chairman of the Chemical Manufacturers Association's Community Awareness & Emergency Response Task Force, he spreads the word on Responsible Care with evangelical fervor.

Richard N. Knowles delivers the gospel of the value of public outreach and constructive communication to CMA member companies and anyone else who'll listen. "I travel about 70% of my time, and it's a big scramble keeping up with things like laundry," he says with a chuckle.

In a more serious vein, he offers variations on this theme: "We need to build sustainability in our communities by having diverse groups of people come together in a process of dialogue, where we listen to one another and begin to develop a deeper understanding of the issues, begin to develop trust. And in that atmosphere, the community [the plant and its neighbors] can discuss difficult issues and come up with solutions that are far, far better for us all than our current [adversarial] approach."

Knowles became a true believer through his many years of work with communities around the plants he managed - first, DuPont's New Jersey Chambers Works plant in the early eighties, then the company's Niagara Falls plant in the mid-eighties during the era of Love Canal. But he really put belief into practice in Belle, W.Va., where for 10 years, until December of 1994, he managed DuPont's Kanawha Valley facility.

Knowles was instrumental in getting his company and seven others in the valley to participate in a first-of-a-kind exercise called "Safety Street," as the Kanawha Valley Hazard Assessment Project was nicknamed. The June 1994 event witnessed 13 facilities publicly and voluntarily divulge their worst case accident scenarios.

The event was triggered by local activist Pamela L. Nixon, who in 1992 wrote the Kanawha/Putnam Local Emergency Planning Committee asking for worst case scenarios. For two and one-half years, she worked the community. Knowles worked the industry. Because of their efforts and those of Paul L. Hill Jr., president and chief executive officer of the National Institute of Chemical Studies, Nixon's request became a reality.

Nixon describes Knowles as "a progressive, proactive type of individual, one willing to take risks. I don't think corporate headquarters were willing to volunteer information to the public." But Knowles's proselytizing "brought corporate DuPont on-line and other companies as well."

As a result of Safety Street, Knowles says, "we learned to listen. We learned to value one another. We discovered we had many things in common, more in common than we had differences. When I say we, I'm talking about the whole community, including the plants. And in the process we built trust and respect. This does not mean that we agreed all the time ... occasionally the fur would fly ... but there was an atmosphere of openness and trust."

Nixon now serves on CMA's Public Advisory Panel. Fellow CMA adviser Diane B. Sheridan, environmental policy facilitator and consultant, describes Knowles as "an unusual engineer, who many years ago realized that the only way a company could stay in business was to communicate with the community. He's done a lot of outreach and he's convinced of its benefits. He sincerely believes that a company needs to build bridges to the community."

Indeed he does. "In the long run," Knowles says, "our chemical plants function at the permission of the community."

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