April 18, 2005 | General


BioCycle April 2005, Vol. 46, No. 4, p. 34
A recently released study of how the public perceives and reacts to biosolids recycling provides valuable insights into how new and ongoing residuals management programs can build productive relationships.
Ned Beecher and Nora Goldstein

IN 1993, he U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) promulgated federal regulations for the management of biosolids (treated municipal sewage sludge). This so-called “Part 503” rule was intended to be the culmination of a concerted effort, involving decades of research, aimed at understanding potential impacts to public health and the environment from the disposal or use of biosolids. The Part 503 regulations set risk-based ceiling standards for certain trace elements (“heavy metals”) and furthered requirements for pathogen and vector attraction reduction treatments.
Part 503 was generally embraced by those managing sewage sludge and, initially, by some leading environmental groups (NRDC, Environmental Defense), whose interests had been to see ocean disposal of sewage sludge come to an end (which happened at the end of the 1980s). As the 1990s progressed, the percentage of U. S. municipal sewage sludge being recycled to land increased steadily. The stable Part 503 regulations and U.S. EPA’s encouragement of the recycling option were significant reasons for this trend.
But even as Part 503 became the law of the land, scattered incidents occurred. Neighbors to some biosolids land application sites alleged negative environmental or public health impacts. Local controversies sprang up here and there. Small advocacy groups formed around the issue, questioning and opposing land application programs. A few national media stories and a book on public relations titled Toxic Sludge Is Good For You (Stauber and Rampton, 1995) focused attention on biosolids recycling issues, including malodors and environmental impacts.
Wastewater management professionals generally responded to such stories and incidents defensively, often discounting the veracity of reports. Their experiences, for the most part, suggested that there was little risk to public health and the environment, and USEPA continued to promote biosolids recycling. In 1996, the National Academy of Sciences published a report from a panel that had reviewed biosolids recycling and water reuse (National Research Council, 1996); its finding: biosolids recycling presents “negligible risk to public health and the environment.” Despite ongoing occasional allegations to the contrary, it seemed that biosolids recycling was the right thing to do with this municipal waste stream. With this understanding, those researching and managing biosolids continued to focus mostly on technical issues and to address the growing number of outcries from the public by discussing ways to improve communications aimed at achieving “public acceptance.” It was believed that if adequate technical information was provided to the public, the public would come to recognize the importance of biosolids recycling and provide support for local land application programs.
The efforts to generate public acceptance were partially effective, but not in all circumstances. Throughout the late 1990s and into the beginning of the new century, local opposition to biosolids recycling projects increased. Opponents became organized, linked by the new technologies of email and the Internet. Local communities in New England and Pennsylvania and counties in California, Florida, and Virginia began to severely restrict or ban biosolids land application – or at least certain forms of it (Class B). Several prominent legal battles ensued, including ones that alleged that biosolids caused the deaths of boys in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and the deaths of cows in Georgia. Even as local, state, and national authorities reviewed these and other cases and found an absence of clear evidence that biosolids played a role in the unfortunate occurrences, the allegations stuck in the minds of interested citizens. In response to concerns, USEPA requested another, different review by the National Academy of Sciences of the federal Part 503 biosolids program (National Research Council, 2002). This second panel looked at allegations and found that while there was no evidence that the Part 503 regulation had failed to protect public health and the environment, there remained uncertainties that need to be addressed. These included a lack of oversight and monitoring of biosolids recycling practices, as well as a need to update the technical and scientific basis for the Part 503 rule. In 2003, a coalition of local and environmental groups submitted a petition to USEPA demanding a moratorium and eventual ban on biosolids recycling. The agency rejected the petition later that year, finding no technical grounds for the allegations it contained. But public outrage, scattered across the continent, has not abated.
In 1999, the Water Environment Research Federation (WERF) issued a request for proposals to study public acceptance issues revolving around biosolids recycling. The research contract was awarded to the New England Biosolids and Residuals Association, which partnered with the Northwest Biosolids Management Association and several others to complete the project. The final report, Public Perception of Biosolids Recycling: Developing Public Participation and Earning Trust (Beecher et al., 2004), was published last fall. This report provides conceptual models for understanding current public perceptions of biosolids, including the influence of many factors – technical issues, typical human responses, communications, information, and politics. The WERF project included a 2002 biosolids public perception survey conducted in the U. S.
While the Public Perception of Biosolids Recycling report discusses biosolids management specifically, we find that many of the concepts behind its recommendations can be aptly applied to the management of other wastes and waste-derived products, including other organic residuals. Indeed, some of the social science research on risk perception and risk communication was developed around siting of facilities, including landfills and compost facilities (e.g. Susskind, 1984), and hazardous waste. Many of the WERF study’s “lessons learned” apply to any type of waste management project where the public may be directly impacted by the practice (e.g., truck traffic at a composting site or landfill). Concepts relating to two-way communications and dialogue, actions that increase or decrease public outrage, and careful planning of actions that may negatively impact stakeholders apply not just to specific activities of waste management programs, but to building productive relationships with the public overall.
Sally Garner, a veteran New York-based producer for the CBS Evening News, explains the biosolids public perception problem from the perspective of someone outside of the biosolids management field: “People wake up to this going on in their neighborhood, and no one from your industry has gone to them to explain what it is. And they become afraid. People are going to be concerned…. People have a right to be concerned. And, what I get when I ask questions is a barrage of research papers and lots of facts, but what’s left is still that people are concerned, and nobody is talking to them.”
Generally, the wastewater and biosolids management profession has not communicated well, or enough, about what it does. It is one of the more hidden public services – something people take for granted and don’t like to think or talk about. It is populated with scientists, engineers, and technicians who do their work well, but out of the spotlight.
Biosolids recycling faces public concerns because it involves bringing treated “waste” into communities as a fertilizer and soil amendment. Suddenly, the behind-the-scenes work of wastewater treatment is in the spotlight, represented by a material that is often not appealing. Biosolids management professionals are often not prepared to deal with the social interactions that inevitably follow as biosolids recycling comes out from “under the radar.” Furthermore, many of these individuals believe the work they do is environmentally positive, and therefore feel unfairly treated when coming under fire from the environmental community opposing their programs.
The WERF biosolids public perception project began with a review of the literature on public acceptance of biosolids recycling and applicable social science research regarding risk perception (e.g. Powell, 1996), risk communication (e.g. Sandman, 2000), conflict resolution (e.g. Susskind and Field, 1996), and public participation. The literature review found limited knowledge among biosolids management professionals and policy-makers regarding social science research on risk perception, risk communications, and the social context in which biosolids recycling programs operate.
Next, the project team developed short case studies that highlighted certain key common experiences of biosolids management programs. Interviews were conducted with program managers and others involved in the specific case study; in some cases, project team members were directly involved in, or had first-hand knowledge of, the projects they were writing about. The case studies included examples of biosolids management programs that have failed because of public controversy, as well as programs that have worked well, with community support.
Then, in order to assess current public knowledge and perception regarding biosolids recycling, a survey was conducted by the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Survey Center. The survey instrument was drafted by the investigating team and reviewed by the biosolids stakeholder review and the social scientist panels convened for the project, as well as the UNH Survey Center. The telephone survey was conducted by the Survey Center utilizing a nationwide sample that, in the end, totaled 1,069 individuals. Those surveyed were selected at random from a nationwide pool of homeowners and house renters – people thought more likely to know something about sewage treatment and agriculture/gardening.
Because of the ongoing conflicts regarding the benefits and risks of biosolids recycling, one part of the biosolids public perception project was to promote greater public participation in biosolids management, including alternative dispute resolution and consensus building. On April 11, 2002, the project held a day-long workshop on consensus building, led by Dr. Lawrence Susskind of the Harvard/MIT dispute resolution program. Biosolids management leaders from across the continent attended.
As the project progressed, some of those who had followed it and/or attended the workshop began to implement some of the project’s developing communications and outreach concepts and strategies, providing some hands-on experiences to test the usefulness of the recommendations. Anecdotal evidence collected over the past few years suggests that working with the public as recommended by Public Perception of Biosolids Recycling enhances trust and can lead to more sustainable biosolids management systems (no matter what management option is being used).
The literature review and case studies found that biosolids management programs that worked well and had a history of public acceptance had several elements in common: They were well-run operations following best management practices; they were seen as beneficial to communities and the environment; they communicated well with – and often involved – stakeholders; most were introduced to communities through a respectful, mutually-beneficial communication process; and they had strong organizational commitment behind the public outreach efforts.
Conversely, those projects that failed or were mired in continued controversy had minimal or no communication with the public they were potentially impacting (e.g. neighbors to land application sites). In some cases, some stakeholders’ first encounter with biosolids recycling was a malodor or unusual and unexpected heavy truck traffic. In many cases, cost-cutting measures or pressure to move the biosolids quickly resulted in “dumb mistakes.” Such nuisance issues, which have been rarely regulated, even at the state or local level, led to interactions between concerned stakeholders and biosolids managers who were unprepared for how to respond. There was little or no local knowledge or oversight. There were no apparent benefits to anyone but the farmer, the wastewater utility, and the contracted land applier. The communications in response to the public outcry were inadequate, defensive, and/or misdirected. Questions were raised and went unanswered. Emotion-charged conflicts developed.
The findings of the 2002 Biosolids Public Knowledge and Perception Survey included:
o Knowledge of the term “biosolids” is limited (only 3 percent can accurately define “biosolids” and another 11 percent had a fairly good idea of what “biosolids” are).
o Support for wastewater treatment is very high (93 percent).
o Regional differences are minimal regarding the level of public knowledge and perceptions of biosolids recycling.
o People are uneasy and have questions about biosolids recycling.
o The choice of words makes a significant difference: using “sewage sludge” instead of “biosolids” creates a marked drop in positive response to a neighbor’s hypothetical use of the material.
o If they need to learn more about biosolids, people want more information about many different aspects of biosolids recycling.
o Faced with a hypothetical situation in which biosolids are used by a neighbor, people say they would turn to and trust friends and neighbors, government agencies, and academic researchers for initial information. They strongly distrust those with a profit motive.
o People favor constructive uses of biosolids (creating energy, recycling nutrients).
o Some factors increase people’s concern about biosolids (if it includes an industrial waste source or is from a large city); other factors decrease their concern (if it is certified annually, if they are contacted prior to its use, if it is supervised locally).
o Strong arguments in favor of biosolids recycling are: “Biosolids recycling returns nutrients to the soil,” and “Recycling biosolids disposes of a necessary waste.”
o In the context of a telephone interview, most people think that biosolids recycling is a relatively small risk to them.
Although they clearly expressed support for the concept of recycling biosolids, respondents to the survey indicated that the strongest argument against biosolids recycling is “not enough is known,” indicating that they are uncomfortable with their own lack of information and/or what they perceive to be an overall lack of information on this topic.
As work on the WERF biosolids public perception project progressed, the investigators – some of whom had long been involved in the biosolids and waste management fields – began to understand the significant distinction between efforts aimed at gaining “public acceptance” and the kinds of efforts recommended by experts in risk perception and risk communication. Suddenly, the project was not about public acceptance; it was about developing public participation and earning trust. The new mantra became “it’s not just public relations; it’s public relationships.”
Risk Perceptions: Research on risk perceptions (e.g., as described by Ropeik, 2004) provides understanding of how human biology, evolution, social context, and individual values and experiences work together to create the responses that waste managers often encounter when the public first learns about a nearby waste management program. For example, fear of the unknown or exotic comes into play if the public has not been adequately informed, in advance, about a biosolids land application site or a municipal solid waste transfer facility and learns about them via odors or truck activity. Even though the waste management project meets all regulatory criteria and the proper permits have been obtained, the fact that, to the neighbor, it is unfamiliar, may have a memorable odor or visual impact, is seen as “industrial,” and has personal impacts (or perceived impacts) can trigger increased concern – even fear. This fear and any associated stress can trigger or increase such responses as perceived or actual health impacts believed to be attributable to the project. Based on this progression of learning, the neighbor (or other stakeholder) develops a perception of the waste management activity that is their reality and is likely negative and lasting, especially if he or she finds information that corroborates his or her fears – which is easy to do, given the diversity of information on the Internet today.
Outrage Factors: Biosolids recycling and other waste management activities are not alone in triggering such public responses: research on risk perception and individual responses to perceived risk have found such reactions to be common around many environmental and public health issues. Waste managers need to pay attention to these so-called “outrage factors” that affect perceptions of risk (Covello and Sandman, 2001). As highlighted in Table 1, these “triggers” apply to almost all waste management programs – from the most benign (e.g., a neighborhood dropoff recycling center) to the most industrial (a large-scale composting facility, landfill or land application project). On the more benign end of the spectrum, concerns at a dropoff recycling center might be caused by truck and car traffic, people using the site at off-hours, and litter – none of which trigger significant levels of outrage. On the industrial end, however, more of the outrage factors in Table 1 come into play, triggering greater levels of concern, even outrage.
Risk Communications and Public Participation: The same factors that cause public outrage, e.g. “involuntary,” “industrial,” “exotic,” can be used to guide public outreach and relationship-building programs – essentially by taking steps to address, or mitigate, each outrage factor. Increasing or reducing outrage by addressing outrage factors is the practice of risk communications. For example, involving stakeholders in the beginning of the process of facility siting or technology selection, and giving all parties involved a voice as the decision-making process evolves, reduce outrage related to having a decision “imposed” involuntarily on the public, provides a sense of control over the outcome, and builds familiarity with the waste stream requiring management (making that a “known quantity” versus something “exotic”). Essentially, by working with stakeholders, waste management programs can impact the “force” of many outrage factors.
For the waste manager, the prospect of involving the public in the decision-making process can create a sense of vulnerability and a lack of control over the project outcome. There are many waste management projects that can go through the permitting, siting and public hearing process without having to fully engage the wider public and potential project opponents. Indeed, for many programs, this is a goal – to stay “under the radar” of certain types of people or groups. But risk perception and risk communication recommend that programs come out from under the radar and engage with the public. At first, such a counterintuitive step may trigger open controversy. However, by giving people time to absorb information, developing dialogue, and paying attention to public input (and working patiently through controversy, if it occurs), waste managers can develop sustainable public understanding and support for whatever they end up doing – which may not be what the waste manager first wanted, but which is acceptable to a wider audience. An obvious benefit of such stakeholder involvement is that when problems arise (e.g. odor impacts on a neighborhood), those same stakeholders involved in project development and/or oversight will work in tandem with waste managers to solve the problem and allay the fears of fellow citizens – a powerful support system. Conversely, when a waste management program decides to remain “under the radar” (few people know about it), it runs the risk of becoming the focus of public outrage at any moment and in a way that is completely out of the waste manager’s control and influence.
Earning Trust: Along with understanding the outrage factors, the WERF public perceptions study highlighted the importance of earning the public’s trust. At the heart of the “trust” factor is credibility, not just of the waste agency staff and its consultants, but of the system (including regulations and enforcement) and the waste agency itself, e.g., its willingness to be transparent and open in its decision-making processes; to conduct research that is credible, legitimate, and salient (and to utilize data from other research studies that are credible, legitimate and salient; see Cash et al., 2004); and to develop (and fund, if need be) the infrastructure for independent oversight and monitoring of its waste management projects.
The WERF biosolids public perception study focused on recycling of a residual, versus disposal or combustion. Recycling by its very nature means that there is a greater chance for public involvement and/or exposure to the process. Thus, the degree to which biosolids recycling programs have met with public resistance is understandable: biosolids recycling brings a processed waste right under people’s noses, even into their food chain. No wonder so many outrage factors are at play in some biosolids recycling programs.
A complicating factor for almost any waste management program today is the physical distance that separates the point of residuals generation from the ultimate point of disposition or recycling. That physical distance often is accompanied by use of a contractor (a “middleman”) to do the actual residuals management. This adds a “relationship distance” into the mix, i.e., little to no contact between the generator and stakeholders in the area where the residuals are being managed. In a way, the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” applies not only to the disassociation of those who generate residuals (citizens and businesses in the wasteshed) from how they are ultimately managed, but also to those responsible for their ultimate management (the waste authority). From the perspective of public relationships, this lack of direct contact can hinder the ability to build productive, public relationships. In fact, use of contractors can actually be a perceived legitimate “excuse” for residuals generators to not engage with stakeholders, with the thought that any interaction is part of the contractor’s responsibility. (In actuality, it is more typically the case that contractors do not budget for much public outreach and relationship building unless that is specifically required in the request for proposals issued by the waste management authority, or is built into a waste authority’s Environmental Management System). Here it is important to note that the Part 503 biosolids rule states that the preparer of the sewage sludge (typically the treatment plant) is legally responsible for its ultimate disposition. This legal responsibility – especially in light of more distant land application sites and processing facilities and the contracting out of management services – drives home the need for wastewater treatment plants to establish oversight and monitoring for its biosolids recycling programs.
A directly related impact from the long distance management scenario (and one which increases outrage) is the “you are dumping on us” sentiment frequently expressed by residents and elected officials in rural areas where wastes generated in cities and suburbs are disposed or recycled. Many of the outrage factors in Table 1 surface in this scenario, including involuntary, uncontrollable, unfair, morally relevant, untrustworthy, and no perceived benefit. It is important to recognize that this long distance scenario is happening with the management of most waste streams these days, especially with solid waste landfills and large-scale composting facilities. This reality only strengthens the case for building productive public relationships in order to address these outrage factors and sustain any waste management program.
A major finding of the WERF study was creating a new definition for a successful biosolids recycling program (which can be applied to residuals recycling projects in general). A more traditional definition of success is: 1) Have met the basic requirements, including obtaining all required permits, application at agronomic rates, public notification, public hearing; and 2) We are in compliance (no violations, fines, etc.). The new definition of success (Figure 1) has four components; as each is achieved, trust in, and stability of, the program should grow over time. The four components, which work in building blocks, are: 1) Biosolids managed in compliance and with best practices; 2)With knowledge, understanding, etc. of the public; 3)With support of most – who feel trust, fairly treated, etc.; 4) Time will tell as stability builds confidence and breeds more stability and reduced risk. The traditional definition of success – being in compliance – is only one part of the first step in the new definition of success (i.e., it is a baseline to build on).
The most important part of the Public Perception of Biosolids Recycling report attempts to answer the question “How should a biosolids program address public perceptions and come out from ‘under the radar’ in order to reduce vulnerability to public outrage and enhance sustainability?” The report suggests that biosolids managers need some understanding of the social context in which their program is operating (or will operate), and that, with thoughtful planning, they can choose public outreach and participation tools that will ensure that the needs of diverse stakeholders are met and that will reduce the likelihood of creating significant public outrage. The tips provided below, while directed at biosolids managers for the purpose of the WERF study, apply to a much broader spectrum of residuals managers.
Of the12 steps recommended for developing public participation and earning trust (see Table 2), the six most critical are:
Build commitment within your organization. Make sure that staff time and funding are available to support whatever consistent outreach and public involvement is planned. And beware of ignoring this step: offering public information and involvement and not being able to follow through creates public frustration and can lead to increased distrust and outrage.
Determine who your stakeholders are. This should be a methodical process that ensures no key stakeholder is forgotten. This step includes understanding the relative importance of each stakeholder in relation to the residuals management program. Get input from stakeholders as soon as possible, early in the process. This step ensures understanding of stakeholder concerns and needs, which is critical in cost-efficiently improving a program and making it work for the widest variety of stakeholders. Build public relationships. Provide a variety of opportunities for your program and stakeholders to get to know each other and build mutual understanding. Building public relationships requires attention to the relationship-building factors of trust, fairness, honest and useful information, respect, and organizational commitment and motivation to doing things right by as many stakeholders as possible.
Improve communications, especially listening and dialogue. For example, never scoff at questions or concerns – most questions are reasonable to those raising them. A useful mantra is “Stop, Listen, and Learn.”
Continue to monitor public perceptions and public relationships. Ensure ongoing communications with stakeholders; don’t stop just because things seem to be going well.
By following these steps, residuals managers will be able to choose the best public outreach tools for their particular program (“tools” refers to newsletters, facility and site tours, advisory groups, surveys, field signs, etc.). The most important tools are those that engage stakeholders in dialogue. For example, a wastewater treatment or composting facility tour is an easy and effective way of developing dialogue, especially if diverse stakeholders like local political leaders, journalists, agricultural and landscaping professionals, and environmental groups are invited. Facility tours are informal, allow for discussion, and provide the public with information about biosolids or compost production and management while providing the residuals manager with feedback. Public Perception of Biosolids Recycling provides additional strategies for selecting appropriate tools and developing a cost-effective outreach program.
Emphasizing this “public relationship-” building approach (Susskind and Field, 1996) to the management of residuals programs is distinctly different from the common public relations approach aimed at gaining “public acceptance.” In today’s world, the public, especially environmental and citizen advocates, are unwilling to “leave it to the experts.” Attempting to convince people that your answers are the only right ones can backfire by increasing public outrage. Instead, as they develop an improved public outreach program, residuals managers should ask themselves such questions as: “Does this communication/outreach step create two-way dialogue with our stakeholders?” and “What will be the impact of my next action on our program’s relationship(s) with key stakeholders?”
The following tips are also helpful for biosolids (and most other residuals) managers to keep in mind:
o Since biosolids recycling is a public function that addresses a public need, interested stakeholders have a right and a responsibility to constructively assist the biosolids manager. Engaging constructive stakeholders may be one of your biggest challenges – so start working on it as soon as possible.
o Give the public time to learn; big trouble comes when people feel pressured by looming deadlines. This may mean communicating extensively and getting public input long before any required public hearing or application deadlines, so that people are already well-informed when the deadlines arrive.
o Ensure independent oversight, either by a state or county agency or by creating independent oversight at the local level. It builds public trust, credibility, and confidence in your program.
o Demonstrate that you care about protecting the environment. Ensure continual improvement in practices, and consider how you can remove factors that contribute to nuisances or public outrage (e.g., size and site projects appropriately). An Environmental Management System can help institutionalize continual improvement and further demonstrate your commitment to the environment.

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