Waste management undertakings that may receive a province’s technical approval to proceed are often stopped dead in their tracks by community opposition. Urban and rural residents block proposals to build waste-to-energy plants and other infrastructure. The threat looms of diminishing landfill disposal capacity in many communities, and of a real crisis if existing options are used up but not replaced.
Despite detailed planning processes, we must ask, “What are the issues thwarting the best efforts of government at all levels to provide waste management and other essential services?” Whether it’s waste management of power generation, what are we overlooking in our planning, consultation and engineering work?
“It’s the community, stupid!” says an inner voice. But how could this possibly be, if the community has been involved integrally at every planning step?
Let’s look more closely.
The affected community’s interests are usually (and incorrectly) assumed to be fairly, transparently and completely represented by government institutions. Decision making is retained by these authorities who mandate and guide the public consultation process. In fact, some government guidelines (such as Ontario’s brownfield redevelopment guidelines) only recommend but do not require public consultation when risk assessment is used as a decision-making tool (and then only for riskier projects).
A recent report of an advisory panel created by Ontario’s environment minister to develop proposals on possible approaches to improving the EA process continues to recommend extensive public consultation without addressing the need to empower the community. This is a prescription for community isolation and alienation, adversarial relationships between stakeholders, and tortuous and costly dispute resolution processes.
The omission of explicit, ongoing mechanisms to provide risk assurance and safeguard the community’s health represents a second limitation of the current and proposed planning processes. Although legislation on environmental assessment and protection couple the concepts of human health and environmental safety, government responsibility is split between ministries. The municipal or regional public health unit only enters the picture when community concerns about explicit health issues arise, i.e., after a project has been in operation for some time. Of course, by then it is already too late and the absence of locally relevant health surveillance data forces public health authorities to rely on routinely collected aggregate information, which merely fuels community anxieties and breeds more alienation.
There is a better way forward. After much direct experience in an EA process gone awry, the principals of Community Health Partners (CHP) convened a focus group to help crystallize and describe this better way. Three people, selected for their well-established track records for participation in traditional EA processes, were asked to represent the key stakeholders in a proposed undertaking: community, government and industry. The community actor, a First Nations chief, has an international reputation for environmental stewardship and leadership; the government actor had held senior ministerial portfolios including environment; and the industry actor was a senior executive of a major Canadian corporation with global reach. CHP provided the group with two scenarios: a legacy project (the closure of a landfill site with suspected environmental and health related issues) and a new undertaking (power plant). The feedback from that the group was invaluable and helped to refine and articulate the community health vision.
Before proceeding with any undertaking, the proponent should strike a formal or implied covenant relationship with the affected community. In exchange for the right to be a full partner in the permitting process including risk assessment and management, the community commits to work in good faith to achieve consensus with all other stakeholders. Project work must be guided by principles of fairness and transparency. The affected community’s representatives would be democratically selected and involved in all advisory groups and working committees throughout the life of the project.
A surveillance mechanism would be implemented before project commencement to benchmark indicators of the affected community’s health and environment, and to monitor those indicators in near-real time throughout the life of the project. The surveillance database would comprise timely, valid, reliable, objective locally-relevant medical, health and environmental monitoring evidence. By its very existence, this information discourages formation of future (and past) liability claims. It also provides the community with a current and scientifically defensible bellwether of its health and safety. Furthermore, this same mechanism can monitor the ongoing benefits of the project (economic, cultural, etc.).
The natural outcomes of this paradigm are trust and credibility in the planning and implementation processes, participating agencies and their spokespersons, and information sources. The covenant relationship empowers the community by imparting decision-making authority and ensuring fairness, transparency, and “understandability” to all facets of a given undertaking. The costs to the proponent of the CHP paradigm are recognized as an investment in the community’s health and well being, and costs for adversarial processes are much reduced if not eliminated. Essential infrastructure projects are welcomed, not resisted. Welcome to the 21st century!
Jim Heller and Ron Brecher are principals of Community Health Partners, based in Toronto. They can be reached by email at, respectively, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org