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Using Focus Groups to Clarify Perceptions of Capital Infrastructure Projects the St. Louis MSD Experience

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Most significant infrastructure projects in the wastewater industry involve complex engineering solutions based on highly technical decisions and the application of standards, regulations and policies. While considerable thought and effort are dedicated to generating the technical solutions, typically less effort is spent informing the public and obtaining feedback during the initial planning stages. Often, the public is not involved with the decisions until the budget and rate impacts are presented to the governing bodies, Districts, or City Councils after the technical decisions have been made.

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) commissioned a comprehensive long range evaluation of its biosolids management practices and options at all seven of its wastewater treatment plants. Solids Handling and Treatment options evaluated included continued incineration, composting, anaerobic digestion with land application, and landfill of biosolids. While many of the options were technically sound, MSD was interested in understanding the public perception of the technologies under consideration and the concerns that might be associated with specific technologies and final uses. In addition, since the majority of solids generated by MSD are currently incinerated, MSD wanted to gauge the impact of incineration on residents located near these facilities, prior to selecting biosolids management options.

This paper presents the process of using focus groups, including the pre-planning process needed to identify participants, venue, and discussion subjects to address public perception in the early planning phase of a major capital project. It also includes information provided by pre-event surveys, along with a discussion of how the results of the focus groups were incorporated into the MSD decision making process and shares “lessons learned” for others considering focus groups for their projects.

Keywords: Public participation; biosolids master planning; public outreach

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2011-01-01

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