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CHECKING THE PULSE OF THE COMMUNITY: THE VALUE OF PUBLIC OPINION RESEARCH ON BIOSOLIDS SITES

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Abstract:

In 1993, the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District, the wastewater treatment authority that serves 1.5 million citizens in metropolitan Denver, CO, began buying land in Eastern Colorado near the small agricultural community of Deer Trail, CO, to use as a biosolids land application site. Over the next several years, Metro acquired 52,000 acres of agricultural land suitable for growing wheat, millet, and other dryland crops. During the acquisition phase, Metro thought that, by buying land in such a remote area, it would face little or no viable local opposition to applying its biosolids, which would be used as a soil amendment in farming operations.

As early as 1995, Metro began to experience opposition from its neighbors when complaints about things such as land application practices, truck traffic, soil erosion, and removal of Metro's land from county tax rolls began to surface. In 1996, a group of Eastern Colorado citizens showed up at a routine State of Colorado informational hearing to complain about Metro's use of its property as a biosolids land application site and to request stringent and onerous state restrictions on its land application practices, which were in full compliance with both federal and state regulations. Despite these two warning shots across its bow, Metro continued to make and implement plans regarding its property.

By early summer of 1997, Metro had announced that it intended to accept for further treatment about 20,000 gallons a day of pretreated wastewater that needed to be removed from the Lowry Landfill Superfund Site east of Denver to prevent contaminants from spreading from the landfill to surrounding areas. Soon thereafter came a highly slanted three-part series on biosolids aired by CNN's Lou Dobbs in late June. Just before the CNN story aired, a false accusation from an environmental activist surfaced that the pretreated Lowry Landfill Superfund Site ground water Metro would be treating contained illegally dumped plutonium wastes from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons trigger manufacturing operation northwest of Denver. All these things caused concerns to mount and tempers to flare in Eastern Colorado. By late June, Elbert County, in which about 60 percent of Metro's land lies, had issued Metro a cease-and-desist order. The order prohibited Metro from applying biosolids on its own property.

Metro was then faced with a decision: Fight the order in court or find a way to work things out peacefully with the neighbors, other concerned citizens, and the two counties (Metro's land lies in two adjacent counties). Metro chose the latter option and began an effort to repair its relationships with its neighbors, concerned citizens, and the counties. After several meetings with a self-selected group of stakeholders representing most of the affected factions, Metro and Elbert County came up with a plan for a biosolids monitoring program conducted by a competent, independent third party to analyze Metro's biosolids, soils at Metro's farm site, groundwater (both alluvial and deep aquifer), and sediments to make sure Metro's biosolids were not contaminating its neighbors' property, their groundwater, or surrounding surface waters. The agreement was codified in a three-party intergovernmental agreement (IGA) that named an Elbert County environmental health official as the stakeholders' point of contact and the US Geological Survey (USGS) as the agency that would collect, analyze, and report the findings of the monitoring project. The IGA was signed by Metro and both counties. It further specified that Metro would work out an erosion control plan with the soil conservation districts in which its property fell. In return, Elbert County rescinded its cease-and-desist order.

Sampling and analysis under the independent biosolids monitoring program began in 1999. With the approval of the stakeholder group, Metro placed USGS under contract. Along the way, numerous meetings had occurred with the entire stakeholder group and with various individuals and county officials. One component of the independent biosolids monitoring program called for an annual meeting of the stakeholder group at which USGS would orally report on the monitoring program and Metro would report on its efforts to control wind and water erosion on its property.

In 2000, Metro conducted a study of its solids management practices. In conjunction with the overall solids management study, Metro also conducted a survey involving one-on-one interviews with neighbors surrounding its property, community leaders, elected officials, and concerned citizens. The participants of the survey gave Metro a grade of about a “D”. Metro had improved somewhat since its initial appearance in Eastern Colorado, but there was plenty of skepticism as to its sincerity and willingness to follow though on perceived promises. This survey was used as a benchmark to measure shifts in the “public trust” needle. In 2003 and again in 2006, Metro conducted surveys of neighbors surrounding its property, other officials, and concerned citizens. Many of the respondents to this survey were also respondents to the first survey. Metro's “grade” on surveys has gradually improved, but shows room for continued improvements.

This paper will discuss the surveys, including the survey methodology and reason for choosing it, selection of respondents, survey instrument development, the degree to which the findings are projectable, and a comparison of the findings. The paper will also discuss actions Metro took to “check the pulse” and why, especially in a risk communication climate, actions speak louder than words.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2175/193864707787976272

Publication date: January 1, 2007

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  • Proceedings of the Water Environment Federation is an archive of papers published in the proceedings of the annual Water Environment Federation® Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC® ) and specialty conferences held since the year 2000. These proceedings are not peer reviewed.

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