Mitigation of rhetorical tension in emergency planning communication



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Texas Tech University


Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) are nexuses of community stakeholders and, as such, represent the diverse interests and concerns of their communities regarding preventing and planning for emergencies. These organizations are required to establish procedures for giving the public access to information about hazardous chemicals in their regions, specifically Tier II chemical reports. However, this task is complicated by the rhetorical tension that exists between the two types of risk with which LEPCs contend: the risk of chemical accidents (which seems to call for making information accessible to the public) and the risk of sabotage (which seems to call for limiting public access to information). This applied ethnographic study of two Texas LEPCs addresses the following questions. First, how do LEPCs mitigate this tension to communicate with the public? Second, what roles do structural flexibility and ambiguity in communication play in LEPCs? This study spanned over two years and includes an analysis of the following: the texts that guide LEPCs (the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, or EPCRA; EPA documents; and LEPC bylaws), the texts created by the participating LEPCs (including emails, public education materials, and Web sites), the organizational structures of these LEPCs, interviews of members, and the members’ oral discourse. The EPCRA statute that mandates LEPCs has ambiguity that allows flexibility in LEPC organizational structure. This flexibility lets LEPCs structure themselves according to their communities’ exigencies and the specialties of members. The flexibility within the bylaws allows active LEPC subcommittees to assume duties that other subcommittees are dropping. Most significantly, the Web sites and the members’ discourse reveals that LEPCs use ambiguity in their writing, often strategically, to mitigate the tension between the two types of risks, communicating the public’s right to access Tier II information but dissuading potential saboteurs from requesting this information. Furthermore, one of the participating LEPCs uses ambiguity to promote membership. The use of ambiguity can be ethical, but ambiguity—particularly in the form of uncontextualized terms—can obfuscate the public’s understanding of its rights, even when LEPCs have the right-to-know information on their Web sites.



Local emergency planning committees (LEPC), Strategic ambiguity, Emergency planning, Local