Brian Taylor


Myth busting

Community Relations

Puncturing myths espoused by opponents may be the first pollution control challenge for any planned waste-to-energy project.

April 7, 2014

Operators of all types of energy-from-waste (EfW) plants are well aware going into a project that numerous approval and permitting processes geared toward monitoring and limiting pollution will be critical.

In addition to measuring and controlling emissions after a plant starts up, project planners often must also be prepared with their pollution control facts and figures as soon as the first proposal is made to build a plant.

Local opponents to EfW plants may receive backing from interest groups based hundreds or thousands of miles from the proposed site, who often label projects as “incinerators” no matter what technology they use.

Between responding to those with genuine “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) concerns and fending off those with a more national or global agenda, EfW project backers will likely need to be ready to tell their pollution control story in the earliest stages of a project.

As the president and CEO of Toronto-based Prester John Public Affairs, John Foden has gained experience helping EfW project backers with their public outreach campaigns.

In the following interview, Brian Taylor of Renewable Energy from Waste (REW) asks Foden about some of the key communication considerations for project backers as they try to portray the reality of their pollution control situation to the public.

REW: What are some of the first signals received by the project’s backers that would indicate NIMBY resistance to an EFW project?

John Foden (JF): If there’s going to be resistance to a project then it usually happens fairly early, most often as municipalities begin the research into their technological and process options. Phone calls, letters, petitions and media stories soon follow, even before there’s a project plan to oppose. During this time there are plenty of rumors, innuendo and inaccurate reports, so it’s important that the proponents be proactive, focused and transparent. It’s critical that the opposition and NIMBY crowds aren’t allowed to get too far ahead of the issues by sensationalizing the debate or fear mongering.

REW: To what extent does NIMBY opposition arise to anaerobic digestion or gasification processes compared to mass-burn technologies?

JF: NIMBY opposition happens for all type of projects, including road extensions and widenings, transit lines, water treatment plants and even fire stations and hospitals, so it’s not unique to a particular form of waste treatment. NIMBY campaigns have more to do with the nature of the host community rather than anything fundamental to the proposed technologies. Some places are quite reactionary while others tend to be more curious and open-minded. Knowing the audience is critical to the success of any project.

REW: What emissions control or environmental protection information should a project’s backers prepare to distribute to help counter a NIMBY campaign?

JF: Transparency is the watch word. Explaining how the technologies fit within the regulatory standards is always helpful. Showing how these standards apply in other jurisdictions can provide helpful context. Demonstrating a track record of improvement over time is useful, as is data showing just how far below the regulated standards these particular technologies operate. You can’t pick and choose, presenting only the best results, or less controversial measures. People need to see that EfW technologies can safely manage dioxins, furans, SOx (sulfur oxide), NOx (nitrogen oxide), etc. Case studies can demonstrate how other communities have embraced similar projects.

REW: To what extent should this information be thorough and technical and to what extent should it consist of easily understandable comparisons or examples?

JF: Simple, accurate, understandable language is critical. It’s important to avoid circulating information that is too technical or full of industry jargon. Graphics, schematics and charts are always helpful. The vast majority of people want to learn about the issues and discuss the options as equals, using language that is shared and understood by all stakeholders, so keeping it simple allows everyone to engage in debate. Of course, it’s prudent to have the technical information available for those seeking more in-depth detail.

REW: If NIMBY campaigners point to an emissions level within the project backers’ own data and suggest an alternative that is technically feasible but cost prohibitive, how can a project’s backers respond in a way that does not make them sound like profiteers?

JF: Technologies in the marketplace typically exceed regulated health and safety standards wherever they operate, so cost-prohibitive NIMBY alternatives don’t often add value to the debate. Presumably, an alternative may be suggested because it could improve system performance, and increased costs are quite understandable in this case. But that doesn’t mean that the vendor or proponent is acting as profiteer. After all, a project proponent can hardly be blamed for a more expensive solution proposed by an opponent.

REW: If an energy project’s backers determine that NIMBY campaigners are inflexible and disregard presented evidence, how does this affect the project backers’ strategy?

JF: Even in the face of an intransigent NIMBY group it’s important to remain dedicated to continuous outreach, education and consultation. The NIMBYs don’t represent everyone in the community, nor do they reflect the views of the municipal council. So ongoing communication is done for the benefit of other interested stakeholders and folks coming late to the process.

These outreach activities offer an ideal means of engaging municipal staff and politicians in an ongoing dialogue. Ignoring legitimate scientific evidence is not unusual for NIMBYists. However, it is quite uncommon among genuinely interested stakeholders. Those folks tend to engage in the debate to listen and learn, and they welcome all relevant accurate information so that they can form responsible opinions that will in turn inform the decisions that best serve their community.

REW: If it is discovered that a NIMBY campaign is essentially being directed by people and groups from outside the local area, is there a counter-NIMBY campaign strategy that can point out this circumstance?

JF: It’s quite a common approach for NIMBY opposition to seek credibility by engaging non-local organizations. For instance, a national organization or a notable umbrella group that shares their views represents not just additional arms and legs but a built-in brand. Of course, it is entirely legitimate for such groups to get involved if they’re adding genuine insight to the debate. But just as transparency matters when disclosing environmental performance issues, so it’s entirely reasonable to highlight the role of out-of-town influencers when their involvement is misleading or inaccurate. Of course, proponents can also engage out-of-town talent, which is often even more effective as the real-life, hands-on experience of an EfW community often carries more legitimate weight than the theoretical complaints from a fly-in environmental group.

REW: Can you point to and comment on successful responses to NIMBY campaigns that have resulted in a community that accepts an EFW project to which it initially expressed opposition?

JF: As part of a sincere public outreach campaign, many EfW plants host some form of community relations committee, where local stakeholders can participate in ongoing discussions about plant operations.

Typically, former opponents are the most common members of these committees. They sometimes approach this forum as a way to continue their opposition, but more often than not they come to understand the environmental, economic and employment benefits of EfW technologies.

The conversion of the NIMBYist can also be seen in land uses adjacent to them: a New England facility now sits in the middle of a cranberry bog; sports fields surround a plant in Ontario; new subdivisions creep closer to a plant in Florida.

It’s important to remember that EfW can serve as the ultimate “in-my-backyard” (IMBY) solution, as it allows local communities to manage their waste as a resource within their own jurisdictional boundaries rather than shipping their problem to some other poorer or weaker community.


John Foden is president and CEO of Prester John Public Affairs, Toronto.


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