LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 11 no 1, September 2010, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times (ISSN 1440-4966) & Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Editor: Anne Roberts

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Book Review:

Engaging the Community: A Handbook for Professionals Managing Contaminated Land, by L. Heath, S.J.T. Pollard, S.E. Hrudey and G. Smith, Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment, March 2010, 90pp.

Review by Sharon Beder*

Engaging the Community

*Sharon Beder is a visiting professorial fellow in the School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication at the University of Wollongong. Her website on Business Managed-Democracy can be found at http://herinst.org/BMD

The Engaging the Community Handbook is available for purchase - AU$35 – from CRC CARE in Adelaide, South Australia: www.crccare.com/working_with_industry/

I hear what you’re saying…

Engaging the Community is a guide book aimed at helping government authorities and private companies to gain community trust and acceptance for any plans they might have for dealing with contaminated land: “These practical tools are intended to facilitate understanding and approval of proposed developments within the community” (p. 2). It would be wrong to assume the book is meant to assist communities by ensuring that contaminated land is made safe and environmentally benign, or to enable local residents to have a voice in proposals that will affect them. Engaging the Community is essentially a public relations manual on how to persuade local communities and other interested parties in ways that will not enrage them but will sooth and reassure them.

Whilst much lip service is given to “participatory decision making” in the book, there is little substance behind this. The aim of community concerns is not so much so those concerns can be addressed, but rather so that a good risk communications plan can be developed (p.10). The authors point out that it is important to let people express their concerns otherwise they may become outraged, but the issue of whether or not these concerns are genuinely addressed seems to be of little interest.

The book contains many brief examples and short case studies. One example is of efforts to site a nuclear waste repository in the US. A public meeting revealed that the “public were more aware of the characteristics of the proposed sites than the authority” and that meeting-goers were therefore able to point out “health and safety, transportation and waste storage” issues that had not been adequately addressed by the authority. The lessons to be learned from this, according to the authors, were not that the authority was remiss in its research and preparation, nor that the public consultation was successful in that this was caught in time, but rather that the problem was the conflict that had not been avoided because of, amongst other things, “community culture and distrust towards the relevant authorities” (p. 29). Yet this distrust seems to have been warranted.

Similarly, a NSW case study is given as an example of poor risk communication practices. At Port Kembla a copper smelter had been operating for 40 years with excessive emissions that exceeded national and international health standards for lead and sulphur and repeatedly breached local pollution control standards. When it stopped operating the local residents noticed a marked environmental improvement. When it was proposed that the smelter be reopened by new owners, the residents objected, claiming that they had not been sufficiently consulted and that they could not be sure that the emissions from the smelter would not be polluting. The government passed special legislation to enable the smelter to be opened in 2000 despite a successful legal challenge by local residents.

The lesson to be learned from this was, according to the authors, that residents were outraged because of various factors such as their lack of power, the memory of past pollution, the perceived unfairness and the untrustworthiness of the company and government authorities: “It is not always the lack of understanding that constrains the public’s consideration of science, economic and political issues, but the lack of political framework that outlines clear choices, benefits and trade-offs in decision making” (p. 45). In fact there was nothing constrained about the community’s understanding of the science, economic and political issues as evidenced by the fact that the reopened “smelter breached numerous air quality criteria” in the following two years, and it was closed again because the owners found it was not economic to meet the regulatory requirements.

The case studies of good communication practices are even more bizarre. The first is of remediation of the Homebush Bay Olympic site. This happens to be a case that I have written about myself. Success, according to the book authors, was evident in that the public accepted the remediation. They claim trust was established between government and the public by making reports and data of site investigations available to the public through local councils, libraries and local environmental groups.

However several key reports about this development were not made public. They included a multi-volume report by Dames and Moore on the site remediation that found that the most contaminated parts of the site posed potential health and safety problems to workers and site visitors during redevelopment and that there could be public health risks to users of these areas arising from possible seepage of contaminants and gases to the surface after redevelopment was complete.

Reports by environmental consultants Inner City Fund (ICF) P/L assessing the health and environmental risks that were posed by the Homebush Bay site were also kept secret. In its report on the contamination of Haslam's Creek South, ICF concluded that risks to people using the site from breathing in contaminants were probably within acceptable limits but that "insufficient data was available for quantitative assessment". Other ICF reports were similarly equivocal.

The book’s authors claim that the “application of risk assessment increased the feeling of ‘ownership’ of the project between the government and the public”. It is difficult to know how this could have been, given that the risk assessments were not published. The report also applauded the project for its public consultation including a “proactive approach involved unions, residents and the public in assessment and dialogue” (p. 49).

However, the mandatory requirement for an environmental impact statement to be prepared and publicly displayed for community comment was removed through an amendment to the Regional Environmental Plan (REP). It gave the NSW Minister for Planning full authority to give consent for development of the contaminated land to occur without the normal consultation process.

Instead, selected groups were consulted, ranging from Greenpeace, which had been co-opted by its role in designing the Olympic village, through to a local group called Greenspace, which apparently consisted of three married couples who organised exhibitions and translators for the local community. A few key people were kept informed, including a specially selected environmental committee. Selected information was provided to others through newsletters and brochures.

However, many local residents did not feel there has been adequate public consultation and participation. A survey of local residents by the local group, Greens In Lowe, found that of the 100 residents surveyed, 71% said they were not getting enough information about what was to be done in the Homebush Bay area for them to be able to form an opinion on it, and 75% said that they had not received enough information about the clean-up of pollution in the area to satisfy them that the area was safe for people to live and work in.

The book concludes from these case studies that risk communicators “need to interpret scientific findings to enhance the technical understanding of a range of stakeholders” (p. 56). But this assumption that opposition is rooted in ignorance is not supported by their case studies. Often opposition is a rational response to what the community does know and understand.

In the section on “Raising the bar on community consultation,” the authors utilise public relations techniques for categorising the community according to their amenability to negotiation and acceptance of the proposed project. Categories, including the angry group, the uninterested group, the stubborn group and the group with positive attitudes, are meant to enable project proponents to tailor their communication strategies according to whom they are talking to. It also enables individuals to be selected to be part of a forum that is met with regularly, ensuring that such meetings are kept “small and controllable” (p. 63).

The authors note that at more public meetings it is important to acknowledge people’s questions, for example by writing them down and responding to them as time allows. “Be empathetic and listen to their concerns. Acknowledge their preconceptions, especially if you are going to contradict them.” (p. 69) “Any risk communication process that lacks an effective means to listen to community concerns and a commitment to seriously seek to understand those concerns will be dismissed by the community as merely public relations” (p. 76). The authors don’t seem to realize that any process that fails to go beyond understanding and actually address those concerns will be dismissed as public relations!

Contaminated land practitioners are advised to explain the options “with a clear message that a decision will be made ‘in the public interest’”; however, if the final decision “cannot honestly be justified as being ‘in the public interest’ then the community will lose interest in the decision makers. At this point an independent consultant specialising in community consultation may be required…. The goal is to make the community feel they have some control over their own destiny” (p. 73).

In the end, it is perception that matters, and this book provides guidance about how to manipulate public perception to ensure that the community feels it has been consulted and has had its say. It is not about genuinely engaging and empowering the community.

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