WINNING TRUST THROUGH OPEN, HONEST COMMUNICATION HELPS REDUCE NEIGHBORS' FEARS OF BIOSOLIDS
Abstract:In early 1997, citizens’ fears concerning biosolids application on publicly owned treatment works- (POTW-) owned agricultural land in eastern Colorado bubbled over, resulting in a county ban on biosolids. It took the POTW almost a year to work out an agreement outside the courtroom that resulted in the ban being lifted. It took two more years of persistent work for the POTW to establish a degree of trust with neighboring landowners and other interested parties. The trust resulted from a combination of a thirdparty controlled, independent biosolids monitoring program and risk communicationbased outreach to neighbors and other interested parties in eastern Colorado.
The Metro Wastewater Reclamation District (Metro), a large special district that serves about 1.5 million retail ratepayers in metropolitan Denver, is the POTW that faced the situation outlined above. Metro owns 50,000 acres of eastern Colorado farmland near the tiny plains town of Deer Trail. Members of the community close to and adjoining Metro's property began to oppose the idea of biosolids land application shortly after Metro began purchasing the land in 1993. Their unrest continued into 1995 and 1996 and included such actions as soil conservation districts (SCDs) passing resolutions to fight “sludge application” and in their showing up unexpectedly at a Colorado Water Quality Control Commission hearing to protest Metro's biosolids application on its own land. In mid-1997, one of the two SCDs that has Metro land in its area of influence asked the commissioners of Elbert County to ban Metro's application of biosolids on its own land.
An independent biosolids monitoring program and a low-key, persistent communication effort with neighbors along risk communication lines has resulted in progress. No longer is Metro the pariah of the plains; some of Metro's neighbors even consider it a good neighbor. Efforts to defeat persistent attacks by an environmental activist are also being rewarded, though fighting these attacks is somewhat like fighting a prairie fire: Just when you think it's out, it pops up again somewhere else.
An open-minded approach, changes in actions, the application of a number of risk communication principles, and persistently applying proven media relations and governmental affairs techniques are helping secure Metro's position. This paper provides an overview of:
The history behind the problem
The role played by a successful independent biosolids monitoring program in the sometimes uneasy peace between the POTW and its neighbors
A review of risk communication-based outreach to the POTW's neighbors and other interested parties in eastern Colorado
Application of other relevant communications techniques
Other complicating factors such as dealing with a persistent environmental activist
The overall lesson is that trust is easy to lose and hard to win back and persistence pays off — eventually.
Document Type: Research Article
Publication date: 2001-01-01
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