Services for Environmental Attorneys
Armies travel on their stomachs and Cubs fans live on hope, but attorneys serve their clients by obtaining the best possible information.
Many environmental attorneys and their clients know that Rose Hill Communications’ professionals provide hands-on community outreach and public involvement work. However, what many don’t know is that the majority of our work actually involves gathering and analyzing information—a process known as community and stakeholder assessment. We perform assessments both to ensure that our outreach and public involvement efforts will meet community needs AND to ensure that our clients and their attorneys understand the factors driving the issues they may be facing. This page contains information on the types of cases in which our services— especially our community and stakeholder assessment services—can help environmental attorneys assist their clients in achieving successful resolutions to community-based concerns.
The Assessment Process Answers Key Questions About Environmental Concerns
Community-based environmental concerns can lead to significant problems if they aren’t addressed effectively—and clients often look to environmental attorneys to advise them in such matters. But just as in the case of medical care, it is rarely advisable to rush to surgery before blood tests, x-rays, and other diagnostic tools can more clearly define the problem. When stakeholders raise questions or concerns—or public concerns become apparent through impending enforcement actions or requests for public hearings in response to permit applications or renewals—attorneys and their clients should ask a few questions of their own, including:
- Who are the stakeholders raising concerns? How do they fit within the overall community?
- What, specifically, are their concerns? Are their concerns based on lack of information or misinformation? Are they colored by past incidents in the community?
- How widespread are the concerns? Do different stakeholder groups within a community hold different types of concerns or views of the situation?
- Where do stakeholders get their information? Which specific channels of communication might a client use to reach out to stakeholders?
In addition to answering these questions, we consider the relevant political, social, and economic contexts within a community that can shape stakeholders’ attitudes and beliefs. Examples include:
- Political context—Could opposing your client over an environmental issue provide a political advantage or fund-raising benefit to politicians seeking public office or to other stakeholders? Do environmental issues have a history of being politicized in this community?
- Social context—Are certain segments of the population particularly sensitive to a history (or perceived history) of exclusion from community decision-making processes? If so, then the likelihood of environmental justice claims increases.
- Economic context—Do residents in certain neighborhoods or in the community as a whole believe that they have been “dumped on” by a proliferation of “dirty” or undesirable facilities or historical contamination, leading to depressed home values and limiting the entry of more desirable, clean businesses into the area?
Our community and stakeholder assessment process allows our professionals to gather the information attorneys and their clients need make good decisions regarding communication and outreach.
Several in-depth articles and other documents on our community and stakeholder assessment process are available for download on the “Publications” page of this web site.
Permitting and Siting Actions
Permitting and siting are routine activities which, in most states, follow well-established requirements. The existence of well-established requirements in terms of paper work and public noticing doesn’t necessarily mean that all bases are covered, however. Failure by attorneys and their clients to identify potential stakeholders, and to understand their attitudes and beliefs and the political, social, and economic forces that shape them, can be costly when public opposition erupts, seemingly out of the blue. In the vast majority of cases, a community assessment performed in advance of siting or permitting activities will alert attorneys and their clients of potential problems and sensitivities before full-blown protests emerge. Often, concerns can be addressed through good communication and public involvement activities, which allow questions and concerns to be aired and addressed before agency-led public hearings. On occasion, the assessment process can reveal insurmountable issues that could make siting or permitting nearly impossible or very costly. In such cases the information from the assessment allows the client, in consultation with their attorney, to decide whether proceeding with siting or permitting activities makes good business sense.
Keys to Successful Permitting and Siting Activities
Following are several key concepts that attorneys should consider when they are assisting their clients with permitting or siting activities:
Perform Proactive Outreach—Proactive communication minimizes accusations that a client was attempting to “sneak” a project or change in operations behind residents’ or officials’ backs—accusations that can lead to community-wide anger that may eclipse the actual environmental concerns. Proactive communication encourages a low-key, forthright dialogue, which minimizes drama and emotion while increasing understanding of the project or facility on the part of the community.
Hold Small-Group Meetings to Resolve Issues—Clients can often avoid acrimonious public hearings if they address stakeholders’ questions or concerns in settings that are conducive to productive discussion before a formal hearing is held. Informal, small-group meetings provide low-key settings that allow for more complete and open discussions than formal hearings, increasing the likelihood of resolving community concerns.
In addition, small-group meetings and informal discussions can yield other benefits: clients often hear suggestions that, if implemented, can make their facility a better neighbor. Examples include changing lighting at a facility to minimize nuisance effects on residential neighbors or rerouting truck traffic from a facility away from nearby elementary schools or playgrounds.
Avoid Environmental Justice Claims by Ensuring that All Stakeholders Have an Opportunity to Engage in Permitting and Siting Activities—The information gathered during an assessment can be especially important to ensure that all stakeholders who have an interest in, or may be affected by, a permitting or siting action can be made aware of and welcomed into the dialogue. See the section of this page on Environmental Justice for more information.
Reacquaint Yourself With the Neighborhood—Several instances of “permitting/siting activities gone-bad” that we have encountered occurred because facility management believed that, since they performed public involvement or community outreach activities several years earlier, they still had good relations with their neighbors when, in fact, the majority of the people who currently live nearby moved in after the outreach activities were held. New neighbors may or may not have the same level of knowledge or the same attitudes toward industry as the former neighbors. Thus, proactive outreach to new neighbors may be required to ensure that their questions and concerns are addressed before agency-led public hearings.
Following are two mini-cases that illustrate these concepts:
Case One—A New Lesson Plan
A manufacturing facility’s air permit was up for renewal. The facility’s management had performed outreach work to support the initial granting of the Title V permit five years earlier. They had engaged in this initial outreach work because the facility’s large and visible stack had made the facility the primary target for complaints regarding odors, despite the presence of other potential odor sources in the area. Although the facility had indeed historically produced odors, by the time its permit was up for renewal, it had installed abatement equipment that had greatly minimized the intensity and frequency of odors traveling into the neighborhood. Even though the facility’s managers hadn’t engaged in proactive outreach for some time, several facility employees, who lived in the neighborhood, reported that many of the “old-timers,” who knew about the facility and the work it had done to control its odors, were still active in the area. In addition, the elected officials who represented the neighborhood were the same officials who had been present during the initial outreach activities. Thus, the managers concluded that they probably wouldn’t need to engage in a new outreach efforts to support the permit renewal. Soon after a public notice regarding the permit renewal was printed in the local newspaper, the facility’s managers received a shock: the state environmental agency had received approximately one-hundred-and-fifty letters complaining about odors and pollution from the facility and inquiring whether the emissions could harm the letter writers. Agency personnel informed the facility’s managers that, based on this outpouring of concern, it would be holding a formal public hearing to take comments on the permit renewal. The facility’s attorney submitted a FOIA request for the letters to the state agency, and the facility’s managers soon learned that the letters had been sent by a nearby charter elementary school, which had recently opened approximately three blocks from the facility. The managers had been unaware that a new school was operating nearby. The Rose Hill Communications’ professional who had performed the initial assessment and helped plan the outreach work in support of the earlier permitting activities was asked to learn more about the school and why its students and teachers had sent the letters. The consultant learned that the teachers knew very little about the facility—other than its name—but they could see the stack. They also sometimes smelled odors, which based on their descriptions, might have come from the facility or from any of more than a dozen other sources. The odors were bothersome, and after seeing the public notice about the air permit renewal, one of the teachers decided that he could teach his students about civic involvement by having them write letters complaining about air pollution to the state environmental agency. This case illustrates the need for facilities to keep current with changes in their communities. Several stories on the new charter school had been published in the local newspapers, but the facility’s managers apparently never saw any of them. The students and teachers did smell odors, some of which probably came from the facility, and this likely would have generated some complaints. However, had the school’s faculty known to call the facility (or, more to the point, if the facility’s managers had reached out to school personnel and asked them to call if they had questions or concerns), the letters that triggered a formal public hearing about the permit renewal probably wouldn’t have been sent.
Case Two—An Unlikely Ally
This case deals with a public meeting that was held to comply with the Risk Management Program’s requirement that facilities storing certain toxic or ignitable chemicals in amounts that, if accidentally released, could harm persons beyond the fence line, communicate this information to their communities. Several years before the required public meeting, the facility in this case experienced a release of a gaseous toxic substance that had traveled a considerable distance off-site in potentially harmful concentrations. This incident, which occurred in an urban area, brought considerable negative news coverage and scrutiny from local environmental advocacy groups. However, the incident also resulted in significant changes at the facility in personnel, equipment, and procedures. The new equipment and procedures had greatly increased the safety of chemical handling at the facility, and the new environmental manager who had been hired had a strong interest in working with the community. A professional from Rose Hill Communications worked with facility management to plan for their Risk Management Program public meeting, but much of the ground work had already been laid by the new environmental manager. The environmental manager and the Rose Hill consultant met with various persons and groups, both to explain the reason for the public meeting and to describe what the facility had done to improve safety and spill prevention. In addition, the Rose Hill consultant helped put together a presentation on the facility, its accident prevention program, and its emergency response program as well as information on accidental release scenarios for the facility. She also publicized the upcoming meeting in local newspaper and community bulletins and sent invitations—and made follow-up phone calls—to local officials and to others known to be interested in or concerned about the facility inviting them to attend the public meeting. The meeting was held before a decent-sized crowd of neighbors, officials, environmental advocacy group members, and several reporters. Both the environmental manager and the facility manager gave detailed presentations regarding chemical risk and how they managed it at the facility and fielded questions from the audience. Toward the end of the meeting, a part-time reporter asked a question couched within a confrontational statement to the effect that the facility must be a very dangerous place if it had to have an accident prevention program. Before either the environmental manager or the facility manager could respond, one of the more outspoken leaders of a local environmental advocacy group—a group that had been very critical of the facility when it had had its accident several years earlier—told the reporter that he didn’t know what he was talking about. She went on to tell the man and the rest of the audience that the facility’s management was doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing, and added that they should be commended, both for improvements to the facility and for their openness. The environmental advocate wasn’t backing down from her stance on chemical safety, but she had been impressed by the work that facility management had done to improve safety and initiate pollution prevention initiatives at the facility, and she was willing to say so. No one was more surprised than the facility manager, who had initially been leery of inviting this particular environmental advocate, but who emerged from the meeting a true believer in the power of open discussion.
Rebooting a Positive Dialogue—Yes, It is Possible to Recover From Opposition or Protests
Community relations/public involvement practitioners such as Rose Hill Communications’ professionals strongly recommend at least some assessment work to ensure that stakeholders and their questions and concerns are identified well in advance of permitting activities. However, we are often called in to assist clients who thought they understood their neighbors, and weren’t expecting challenges to their permit applications, but find themselves at the center of opposition and protest.
Re-booting a dialogue that has devolved into a shouting match can be done by conducting interviews to determine:
- What concerns have been missed, or not adequately addressed by the client?
- Have stakeholder groups been excluded (or perceive that they’ve been excluded) and are trying to be heard by voicing opposition
- Whether other political, social, or economic issues have become enmeshed with the permitting or siting activities—and how might we disentangle the issues?
We find that most stakeholders are willing, even after engaging in protest or opposition, to discuss their questions and concerns if they are approached in a sincere, respectful, and forth-right manner. When we perform interview of those who are opposed to a project, we not only provide clients and their attorneys with specific understandings of community questions and concerns—which may be based on such easy-to-resolve issues as a lack of understanding of certain terminology—we are also creating an opportunity to bring all parties back to the table.
Purchase of Existing Facilities or Property for Development
Environmental site assessments (ESAs) are designed to identify “recognized environmental conditions” that could, if they go undetected, expose the purchaser to significant financial liability. Although ESAs and other due diligence, such as legal and financial reviews, can flag many potential liabilities, community-based issues often go undetected, even though they can jeopardize the long-term operation of a facility or require that the property’s purchaser spend a great deal of money to mitigate perceived undesirable effects in order to continue operation.
Community-based liabilities are most often based on:
- Community displeasure with the way a facility has been operated or with the effects or perceived effects it has had on the area.
- Changes in zoning or land use near the facility or property in question that could jeopardize continuing operation.
- Changes in community attitudes toward industry or how residents and officials wish to view their community that can jeopardize long-term operation of a facility or restrict options for the development of property.
The following mini-cases illustrate the concept of “community-based liabilities.”
Case One—The Gentrifying Industrial Park
One of Rose Hill Communications’ chemical industry clients was considering the purchase of an existing facility. On paper, the facility looked good. A map of the area indicated that the facility was located in an industrial park and that the land behind it was owned by a railroad. Thus, the facility appeared to be located in an appropriate area with no homes within at least a quarter of a mile, suggesting that the client could continue to operate there well into the future. The surrounding area, and particularly, a lack of nearby residences, was important to our client, since the facility manufactured large quantities of a chemical that was both toxic and ignitable. The client asked us to take a closer look at the area in which the facility was located. As it turned out, this extra measure of due diligence was fortuitous. Our document research, trip to the facility, and interviews of local officials revealed a far different view of the area than the current land use maps showed:
- The “industrial park” had—for lack of a better term—gentrified. Not only had some of the larger buildings within a couple of blocks of the facility been converted into a multiplex movie theater, a kids’ party center with amenities such as laser tag, and outlet stores, but some of the smaller buildings in the park—buildings that were literally across the street from the facility—had been converted into such non-industrial uses as a kiddie gymnastics school and a daycare center.
- Interviews of local officials revealed that the “railroad” property had recently been purchased by the brother of a state senator, and was being fast-tracked for the development of luxury town homes. A railroad had indeed owned the property, but the land had never been used and was considered suitable for residential development.
Needless to say, our client took a pass on this particular property and purchased another facility where it could continue to operate without undue community concern well into the future.
Case Two—Sometimes You Can’t Go Home Again
A construction company had plans to move an asphalt plant from one location to another, more suitable location in an industrial area located within the same municipality. The company was commencing with the remediation of its original site as it moved ahead with its plans to build its new plant. This particular company had, to its knowledge, enjoyed decent relations with the municipality; however, as it proceeded through the approval process to construct the new asphalt plant, its managers soon realized that something was wrong. After several meetings with municipal officials, it was clear that the municipality did not want a new asphalt plant built within its limits—even in an area zoned for industry. The construction company realized that after spending approximately $1 million on preparing for the move, construction of the new asphalt plant wasn’t going to happen. Rose Hill Communications didn’t work on this particular case, which was unfortunate. It is likely that a day or two of document research (e.g., municipal planning and zoning documents, master plans, etc., and a review of local newspaper stories on environmental and industry issues), along with a handful of interviews with municipal planning staff members and other officials, would have revealed that the plans for the new asphalt plant were in peril. Learning of this problem earlier in the process would have saved the construction company time and money and allowed its management to begin looking for a new site before remediation at the old site was underway.
Case Three—Lies, Damn Lies, and Upscale Residences
A waste management company purchased an existing building within a small industrial park in which it planned to permit and operate a RCRA TSDF (Treatment, Storage, or Disposal Facility) to manage hazardous wastes. Since the building was in an industrial park in a semi-rural area on the outskirts of a small town, the company didn’t anticipate any problems. However, permitting of the facility proved to be a nightmare. Owners of “upscale” homes that had been built on re-zoned property nearby protested vigorously to the state environmental regulatory agency and brought political pressure to bear against the company. A stakeholder and community assessment, which was conducted after attempts to obtain a permit were met with resistance, revealed that the property on which the upscale homes had been built had been re-zoned as a favor to a local politician. The assessment further revealed that the people who bought the homes, which were constructed by another politically connected builder, had been told that the nearby industrial park was slated to be closed so it wouldn’t disturb their idyllic surroundings. The situation with the re-zoning and the promises regarding the industrial park was well known to local officials and would likely have turned up during assessment interviews—had the company thought to perform an assessment before it purchased the building in the industrial park. The fact that the owners of the nearby residential development had been lied to wasn’t enough to overcome their opposition to the TSDF’s permit application. Ultimately, after several years of angry public meetings, the waste management company decided that it should cut its losses and seek a new location elsewhere. (Postscript to this case: By the time the waste management company decided to find a new location, some of the homeowners were so angry that they traveled to the town where the company had hoped to site its facility and whipped up opposition among its residents against the company, proving that when serious conflicts fester, they can take on lives of their own.)
Threat of Enforcement Actions, Citizens Suits, or Other Lawsuits
This category encompasses many possible scenarios involving actors who may possess motives that aren’t immediately apparent. In this section, we will discuss how good information can help attorneys and their clients take appropriate action.
Enforcement Actions—Many enforcement actions against facilities are brought by regulatory agencies in response to public complaints. In such cases, the enforcement action may be dropped if the client is able to resolve the complaints with the neighbors on their own.
Considering that misinformation or lack of information often drive community concerns, some complaints can be resolved simply by providing neighbors with correct information about a facility’s operations and a phone number that they can call if they have additional inquiries or concerns. Administrators and department heads of environmental enforcement agencies are typically pleased when facilities resolve issues with their neighbors without agency interaction because it frees up time for agency personnel to pursue serious cases. Following is a short case study that discusses how gathering and acting upon community information prevented an enforcement action and dramatically improved relations between a facility’s management and the neighbors.
Case One—Tracking Down Odors in the Neighborhood
A state environmental agency was on the verge of slapping an enforcement action on a large manufacturing facility for odor excursions into a nearby neighborhood. Why? The agency was responding to numerous complaints about odors from the neighbors. The facility’s managers turned to an environmental attorney for advice. The attorney, in turn, decided that he and his client needed to know more about the neighbors’ complaints, since according to information the attorney received via a FOIA request, descriptions of odors in some of the complaints didn’t sound like the types of odors that would be emanating from his client’s facility. The attorney hired a consultant from Rose Hill Communications to conduct an assessment. The results of the assessment proved enlightening:
- Residents were clearly smelling odors emanating from many different sources.
- Residents were ascribing all of the odors to the client’s facility because it was large and visible in an area populated by many other smaller manufacturers.
- Residents were also ascribing the majority of the odors in the area to the facility because the business had been in the neighborhood for many years and it was well known, unlike some of the smaller businesses tucked into the many old industrial buildings in the area.
- Employees of a neighboring business complained (although their complaints were never conveyed to the state agency—or to the client’s managers) that the odors that most bothered them occurred when a sludge tank on the facility’ property was opened, and its contents were transferred to a tanker truck for disposal. This operation was carried out in mid-morning when the business neighbor’s employees were present and the windows of the old building were open. The residential neighbors didn’t experience these particular odors, but the business neighbor had been experiencing them for years.
Under the attorney’s and the Rose Hill Communications consultant’s guidance, facility personnel met with their residential neighbors and local officials, and ultimately, with state agency personnel. These meetings led to:
- The ability of the neighbors to differentiate between the occasional odors from the facility and the far more numerous odors from other sources.
- Facility managers were made aware of the need to work on abating the odors their operations were creating. Management set up a dedicated phone line to handle odor complaints, publicizing the number on flyers distributed at community meetings. The neighbors’ input assisted facility managers in identifying the processes that were most likely to be emitting odors.
- The facility made arrangements to have the contents of its sludge tank transferred to the tanker truck at five in the morning—before employees of the neighboring business arrived for work.
- The residents and local officials got to know the facility’s managers—and the managers felt they had gained an understanding of the neighborhood that they’d never had.
- The pending enforcement action was dropped by the state agency.
This facility still had to work on abating its own odors, but it was no longer being blamed for those emanating from other businesses, and both the neighbors and the state agency were willing to give the facility’s managers the time they needed to address the odors for which it was responsible.
Citizens Suits and Suits Brought By Plaintiffs’ Attorneys—Citizens’ suits are brought to compel a facility to comply with environmental regulations for discharges and the like. As such, they are relatively straight-forward, although certain groups that bring them may have specific industries on which they focus; thus, some research on the activities of environmental advocacy groups can provide insights into what groups are likely watching a client’s facility.
Facilities should, of course, comply with all regulations, permit limits, and the like, but in some cases, businesses can also benefit from reaching out to advocacy groups and allowing them to become better acquainted with the facility and its industry. Some advocacy groups employ technical staff to assist businesses with identifying opportunities for pollution prevention or energy conservation, as well as to assist in implementing these environmental- and cost-saving measures. Many such collaborative efforts between advocacy groups and businesses throughout the U.S. have benefited the environment and the businesses. In Rose Hill Communications’ experience, however, the filing of a citizens’ suit may sometimes signal the opening salvo of efforts by plaintiffs’ attorneys or even competitors to bring lawsuits against a company. In such cases, winning a citizens’ suit adds credibility to the plaintiff’s or competitors’ claims and is simply one of many strategic steps to achieve much larger goals. Having an in-depth understanding of the community in which such events are unfolding can help attorneys and their clients better understand what they may be up against so they can assist in the company’s defense. Rose Hill Communications has assisted attorneys and their clients in several such cases, providing vital information through the community and stakeholder assessment process. For more information on how citizens’ suits may lead to other lawsuits, and how competitors sometimes seek to gain an advantage by painting the facilities or activities of others as injurious to the environment, see the article, “Hidden Agendas: How Dubious Motives Can Lurk Behind Environmental Issues—and Complicate Public Dialogue” on the “Publications” page of this website for more information.
Case Two—A Curious Silence
Just as in the case of political endorsements, sometimes who doesn’t weigh in on cases involving environmental controversies can speak volumes. Rose Hill Communications was asked to perform a community and stakeholder assessment to assist an attorney and his client in understanding concerns about alleged exposures of a neighborhood’s residents via migration of contamination known to be present in the soil and groundwater beneath the client’s facility, which was located some distance away. This particular client had recently purchased the facility from another company and soon found that it had inherited a serious legal and community relations problem: a plaintiffs’ attorney was in the process of putting together a series of lawsuits based on what he considered to be an elevated incidence of cancer in the neighborhood, which he was attributing to contamination migrating from the facility. One of the first findings we made was that the case had received extensive news coverage—200 stories in approximately three-and-a-half years—most of which was written by one local reporter. Despite the large amount of coverage, however, the local environmental advocacy group hadn’t made a peep about the alleged exposures. This particular environmental advocacy group, which had been in operation for approximately forty years, was a major—and largely admired—force in the area. Not only did it have a large public membership, it also includes staff members who possess advanced degrees in the environmental sciences. This organization had worked on a number of major issues through the years, including groundwater protection. It hadn’t shied away from commenting on proposed facilities or facility expansions, although its reasoned and science-based approach was such that even when it was opposing development, county and municipal leadership and the local business community did not view the group as “activist” in the negative sense, but as a legitimate stakeholder whose comments were worth consideration. The organization’s work and its initiatives in groundwater, surface water, and habitat protection were covered extensively and often in the local newspapers. With the exception of the situation involving our client’s facility, members of this organization were invariably quoted in stories about environmental issues. A thorough review of the environmental advocacy group’s website and quarterly newsletters (available on the website) also failed to uncover any mention of the alleged exposures from contamination at the client’s site. Because of the impending litigation, Rose Hill Communications’ professionals were not allowed to conduct interviews during the assessment, so we were unable to speak directly to the advocacy group’s members or staff. Based on our research of the advocacy organization’s forty years of activity, however, we reached the conclusion that its scientists had in all likelihood reviewed the investigative reports, geological data, and analytical data characterizing the situation at the client’s facility and determined that the neighbors were not being exposed to the historical contamination. The state environmental regulatory agency had reached this conclusion and said so, as had other authorities, such as the state geological survey and the state department of public health that reviewed the site investigation or epidemiological data. We should add that, in this particular case, the previous owner of the facility had made few efforts to rebut the comments that the plaintiffs’ attorney was making—and that the gullible reporter was reporting as fact. The previous owner’s willingness to allow this situation to fester, apparently based on management’s belief that “the facts speak for themselves,” created an opportunity for the plaintiffs’ attorney to control virtually all of the coverage regarding the contamination at the facility and his assertions that the groundwater in the area had, indeed, managed to defy gravity and contaminate the neighbors’ water wells. While it would have been nice if the environmental advocacy group had seen fit to voice their misgivings about the plaintiffs’ attorney’s claims, why should they, when the previous owners of the facility was so unwilling to respond to public concerns? As it was, the county’s health department, which conducted its own epidemiological study and concluded that the incidence of cancer was not statistically significant (a conclusion also reached by the state department of public health and a leading university’s researchers), was roundly and repeatedly criticized by the local newspaper, which continued to accept without reservation the views of the plaintiffs’ attorney. (Note: testimony from the plaintiffs’ attorney’s epidemiological expert was thrown out by the judge during the first “cancer” trial based on its faulty methodology.) This case imparts several lessons. The first is that the legitimacy of a claim can often be determined, at least in part, by the organizations or persons who are willing to go on record to support it. But the underlying lesson is that a campaign of repeated, erroneous statements should be countered with accurate, well-documented information. Our review during the assessment of chatter in the form of on-line comments about some of the news stories indicates that readers supposed—naturally enough—that if the information in the stories wasn’t true, the owner of the facility would say so. Thus, the previous owner’s unwillingness to engage in a dialogue with the public and the media further bolstered the plaintiffs’ attorney’s claims. Although it should be possible for the new owner of the facility to rehabilitate the facility’s image and rebut the erroneous claims, this process will take a great deal of time and effort, and it is likely that some people will never completely believe that the historical contamination on the facility’s property didn’t cause the cancers in the neighborhood. We are reasonably sure, however, that one group—the staff members of the environmental advocacy group—will believe the new owners. Based on their well-documented history, if they weren’t leery of the plaintiffs’ attorney’s claims, they no doubt would have spoken out on this issue.
Emergence of Questions or Claims Regarding Environmental Justice
U.S. EPA defines environmental justice as: "The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”
While in many cases lower-income or racial or ethnic minority populations may not be intentionally excluded from decision-making processes surrounding siting, permitting, the cleanup of contaminated sites, and the like, there can still be barriers to public participation that can discourage full involvement by these residents. Fortunately, Rose Hill Communications’ community and stakeholder assessment process provides information that can minimize the likelihood that a client will omit lower-income or racial or ethnic minorities from their communication efforts surrounding permitting or other local environmental issues.
How Lower-Income or Racial or Ethnic Minority Populations Come to Be Excluded From Dialogues Regarding Local Environmental Issues
From our experiences, the most common causes of exclusion of lower-income or ethnic or racial minority residents from dialogues surrounding environmental decision-making include the following: 1.Lack of awareness that lower-income or racial or ethnic minorities live in the area and/or lack of awareness that some segments of the population, including lower-income or racial or ethnic minorities, may get their information from sources other than the local newspaper. This type of “benign neglect” isn’t benign. It can effectively exclude some lower-income or racial or ethnic minorities because they are never informed, through the channels of communication that they use, of meetings or of the availability of materials. Lack of awareness can be remedied. For information on how demographic information can be used to ensure that those tasked with performing community outreach are aware of who lives in their community, see “Environmental Community Relations: What Can You Learn About a Community From Reviewing Publicly Available Documents?” on the “Publications” page of this website. 2.Intentional desire to exclude persons who facility managers believe will make demands or otherwise “disrupt” efforts to achieve siting, permitting, and the like. In some cases, groups may also be intentionally excluded because company personnel think—often erroneously—that they wouldn’t be interested in environmental issues because “they aren’t the usual Sierra Club types.” In either of these cases, intentional exclusion, regardless of a company’s motives, drives a wedge between the excluded groups and the company and can lead to claims of environmental injustice. As we already discussed in the section on siting and permitting, proactive outreach and open dialogue can minimize the likelihood that the anger generated by “why weren’t we told” scenarios will derail a project that may otherwise have sailed through without incident. 3.Longstanding community tradition in which a “ruling class” controls community decision-making processes. In such cases, those at the top claim to speak for the entire community and aggressively defend their right to make all community-wide decisions without bothering to consult with “out” groups. Such community dynamics can be extremely problematic for attorneys and their clients, first, because clients don’t typically like to cross strong leaders in a community, and second, because it is in socially and politically repressive communities like these that claims of environmental injustice are most likely to arise. In these communities, lower-income, racial or ethnic minorities, or other groups that are routinely marginalized, may have no other way to participate in community decision-making processes than through protests or by filing lawsuits.
Using Community and Stakeholder Assessments to Develop Effective and Well-Supported Outreach Efforts
Rose Hill Communications’ community and stakeholder assessment process combines quantitative or “hard” data or information, including U.S. Census Bureau and other demographic data, local land use and zoning plans, and other authoritative (e.g., government, foundation-sponsored) reports or documents, with anecdotal information from the review of newspaper/newsletter coverage and personal interviews with local officials, residents, providers of social services, and the like. This comprehensive information-gathering process allows us to characterize community and stakeholder group makeup, lines of communication, and inclusion or lack of inclusion of certain groups in civic organizations, local government, and local decision-making processes. When attorneys and their clients understand the dynamics at play in the communities in which they are working, they can minimize the likelihood of excluding a population group from dialogues about environmental issues. Moreover, if questions regarding the client’s willingness to communicate with all segments of the community are raised, the research performed during an assessment can demonstrate a client’s good-faith efforts to identify relevant stakeholder groups. The following mini-cases provide examples of some of the challenges involved in identifying potential stakeholder groups and the methods by which one can successfully reach out to them.
Case One—Finding “Hidden” Population Groups
Census data can be a real eye-opener: it can reveal the presence of demographic groups that one didn’t realize were present in a community. In a neighborhood within a large city in which Rose Hill Communications’ professionals were working, we were surprised to find that approximately 10% of the population as reported in the Census data was Chinese. We hadn’t noticed many Asian residents while we walked the streets near our client’s manufacturing facility. A closer look at the Census data revealed that the Chinese population was clustered in the Census blocks at the far edge of the neighborhood and at considerable distance from our client’s facility. Inquiries of administrators at the local schools and the local public library branch revealed that the Chinese residents were primarily recently arrived Mandarin-speaking immigrants, who were further described as “overflow” population from an adjacent neighborhood that had long been a destination for newly arrived Chinese. The Chinese residents in the neighborhood in which we were working did most of their shopping and socializing in the adjacent neighborhood, which was why they didn’t appear as a stronger presence in the rest of the neighborhood, despite their significant numbers. We found two major resources that could help us determine how best to reach out to the Chinese residents. The first was a Chinese civic association, which provided translation service and interpreters for nominal fees and could assist in identifying neighborhood leaders and disseminating information. In addition, the local branch of the public library, which was sensitive to the needs of the neighborhood, employed two Chinese, Mandarin-speaking staff members to provide advice on ordering books in Mandarin. These staff members, who had established good relations with many of the new Chinese patrons, also agreed to assist in referring questions and concerns to us and conveying our information to these residents. New immigrant groups often settle initially in specific “gateway” communities or neighborhoods. Some then move on to other communities that are known as friendly to their specific immigrant group. Specialized civic and advocacy groups, some of which are associated with or sponsored by churches or other faith-based organizations, often assist new arrivals in finding jobs and otherwise navigating life in a new country. These groups can provide translation assistance, introductions to opinion and other leaders who can be interviewed, and insights into how best to work with newly arrived immigrants.
Case Two—Diversity In Latino Populations
Latino residents of the U.S. are extremely varied in terms of their countries of origin and their length of residence in the U.S. In one case Rose Hill Communications’ professionals worked on, we found that we needed to work with two very distinct Latino populations in the same neighborhood. The first population group was composed of people whose families had all immigrated to the neighborhood from a specific town in Mexico approximately fifty years earlier. Members of this group still held on to certain traditions (including taking their children and grandchildren back to the town in Mexico from which their families had immigrated to have them baptized), but they were U.S. citizens, spoke English, and interacted with their non-Latino neighbors. Most also owned their own homes. These residents participated in meetings held to discuss neighborhood issues, although not to the same degree as the long-time residents of German, Polish, and Irish descent who also lived in the neighborhood. The second population group comprised recent Latino immigrants who were moving into the neighborhood in significant numbers. These new residents were also predominantly from Mexico; however, they did not yet speak English, own homes, or participate in the civic life of the community other than by attending one of the three Catholic Churches in the area. Conversations with church personnel indicated that many of these new immigrants didn’t read Spanish (or English), having come from rural areas with high illiteracy. Moreover, the new residents didn’t interact much with the long-time Latino residents, meaning that attempting to provide information to them simply by providing it to the long-time Latino residents wouldn’t work. Different outreach strategies were necessary to reach these groups. Reaching out to this second group proved difficult, both because of the language barrier and because of its members’ immigration status. Fortunately, the new immigrants’ strong connection to the Catholic Church provided an avenue for reaching out to them.
Types of Cases That Can Benefit From Our Information Gathering, Communication, and Outreach Services
Attorneys and their clients can most often benefit from our services in the following types of cases:
Please click on the desired bullet point to learn more about how we can help you assist your clients in these types of cases.
Emergence of Questions About the Environmental Effects of Facility Operations or Investigations and Cleanups at Contaminated Sites
Much of the information in this section applies to community relations for both facilities and contaminated sites. Some information that is specific to one or the other topic is also included. Note: The information included in the section on Permitting and Siting also applies to this section. Questions about facility operations most often arise in connection with permitting or siting actions, in response to incidents, such as chemical releases or fires, or regarding nuisance issues, such as excessive truck traffic or odors or noises that bother neighbors. Questions about contaminated sites most often arise when news of contamination initially appears and/or when work on remediation begins (e.g., workers installing pump-and-treat systems or excavating and transporting contaminated soil). Considering that unaddressed questions and concerns can build into significant anger over time, it is in the facility managers’ (or site project managers’) best interest to know what their neighbors are thinking. In addition, since many concerns are based on lack of information or misinformation, facility and site project managers typically have everything to gain and little to lose by establishing lines of communication with their neighbors so that questions and concerns can be dealt with before they build into serious issues.
Neighbors’ Telephobia: How “No Calls” Can Spell Trouble
Many facility managers assume that if residents or officials aren’t calling them, either to complain or to ask questions, that their facility has “good relations” with the community. While this can be true, lack of calls may also mean:
- Neighbors don’t know who to call at the facility, or the facility uses an automated answering system that doesn’t provide clear prompts that will lead a caller to an individual who can answer their questions. In such cases, questions or concerns either go unanswered—or residents and officials instead contact a regulatory agency to make their complaints.
- Neighbors are afraid to call. This can be especially true of immigrants, who may fear “rocking the boat.” Surprisingly, assessment interviews Rose Hill Communications’ professionals have performed indicate that many native born neighbors are also often leery of, or intimidated by, the idea of calling a facility with complaints or questions, although if they are approached, such as during interviews, they are willing to talk.
- Neighbors believe that others, such as a local environmental advocacy group member, have called to complain, so they don’t need to do so themselves. In our assessment interviews, we often find that neighbors believe that others have called. We often find that, despite considerable consternation, a review of the comments made during interviews reveals that no one actually called because they all assumed that a call had already been made by someone else. This can lead to considerable bitterness on the part of neighbors, who believe that facility management is aware of their concerns but is simply ignoring them.
- Neighbors have given up on calling because they believe that no one will take their calls seriously. In these cases, too, residents and officials may instead call a regulatory agency and attempt to get its staff to act on their behalf.
Getting people to call a manufacturing or other industrial facility to ask questions or complain can be an onerous process, and some clients initially ask, “Why should we ask them to call? Isn’t it better if they don’t call?” We then pose the question, “Would you rather they call the state environmental agency with their complaints?” The answer is invariably “no.” The following mini-cases illustrate how lack of information can lead to serious concerns.
Case One—The Bio-Weapons Plant Next Door
Managers of a corn processing facility wanted to make sure that they were on good terms with their residential neighbors. They hadn’t done much outreach recently, and the facility had occasional odor excursions, so its managers decided that ensuring that the facility’s neighbors understood that the odors weren’t harmful—and that the company was working to minimize them—was important. Company management had interviews performed of its neighbors and soon learned that many of them did indeed have serious concerns. The neighborhood had “turned over,” meaning that most of the residents were new to the area and not acquainted with the facility as the long-time residents had been. These new neighbors had, however, heard that the facility had a “germ unit,” and some were convinced that the company was making biological weapons. Based on this finding, facility management engaged in outreach to their neighbors to explain what the facility did—and that the term “germ” referred to “corn germ” rather than biological weapons. Facility management also publicized the phone number of a person at the facility who the neighbors could call if they had other questions or to report odors. Resolving issues such as this before—for example—permit renewal activities, can save a client money, time, and anxiety.
Case Two—Good Hygiene or Harbinger of Impending Doom?
A Rose Hill Communications’ professional was performing interviews of the neighbors of a chemical processing facility. Managers of this facility, which had recently been purchased by the client, had never done any real outreach work, and rumors about the facility’s operations abounded. Among the most striking differences among neighbors’ views of the facility’s operations had to do with the company’s approach to employee health and safety. The company supplied all employees who worked in the production areas with uniforms, which the employees changed into in a locker room at the plant. When the employees completed their shifts, they removed their uniforms, placed them in hampers for laundering, showered, and then dressed in their street clothes before heading home. Area residents who were aware of these procedures were divided into two camps regarding what they meant. One camp, which included family members of some of the employees at the facility, thought that the process of providing uniforms and showering facilities was great. These folks opined that the facility’s management was dedicated to ensuring a clean and safe work environment and ensuring that workers wouldn’t track chemicals back home with them. The other camp took a far darker view of these procedures. To them, requiring showering and providing uniforms simply proved how dangerous the chemicals processed at the facility were—and how much danger they would pose to the community if they were ever spilled or released. Fortunately, a strong community outreach program, including facility tours and discussion of the chemicals at the facility, was able to reassure most of the members of the community that the uniforms and showering were simply good industrial hygiene rather than indications of impending doom.
Identifying Stakeholders and Keeping the Lines of Communication Open—Outreach for Facilities and Contaminated Sites
Rose Hill Communications’ professionals recommend that a community and stakeholder assessment be performed both to determine what residents and officials know about a facility or a contaminated site and to identify concerns or misinformation that should be addressed. In communities where questions or concerns are few and of a minor nature, and residents and officials are comfortable with the facility or believe that a contaminated site is being handled competently, the assessment itself serves to reinforce residents’ and officials’ impressions that the client is interested in their well-being and willing to answer questions. In cases of high concern, conducting an assessment sends the message that the client wants to understand the community and to engage its residents and officials in a meaningful dialogue. Although skeptics typically wait to see how well a client carries through with its efforts, most stakeholders are pleased that the client wants to know what they think. Thus, the assessment process creates an opening for client-stakeholder dialogues. Communities can vary considerably regarding what their residents and officials believe constitutes good industrial or commercial neighbors. In some communities, for example, residents and officials expect donations to community causes or events. In the vast majority of cases, however, simply by ensuring that officials and residents are aware that they can call someone at the facility if they have a question will go a long way to maintaining a reputation as a “good facility.” We also recommend to clients that they make occasional, informal phone calls (e.g., once or twice a year) to key neighbors or officials to keep the channels of communication open and to ask if any questions or issues have come up. Such informal contacts may seem inconsequential, but they are, in fact, key to building familiarity and minimizing the likelihood that a major issue will arise and gather steam before the client hears about it. As with most community outreach in the absence of a significant issue, identifying the right people and keeping the lines of communication open can minimize the potential for serious problems with the community during permit renewals or in the event of an incident at the facility.
Providing General Information—Facility Outreach
We find that providing general information on—for example—how a facility is regulated (e.g., under EPA and OSHA regulations) often dispels at least some of the concerns that can linger in the minds of neighbors. Community and civic groups are often willing to host representatives from local facilities to discuss what they make, how they make it, and how they safeguard employees and minimize effects on the environment. Facilities that Rose Hill Communications’ professionals have worked with have hosted open houses for their neighbors and given presentations to local organizations. Since raw data on environmental performance, such as Toxics Release Inventory emissions reports, have become ever more accessible to the public via the Internet, several of our clients have given presentations to community groups about their pollution prevention initiatives and what the emissions figures published on line mean. We typically encourage our clients to place their emissions figures in context by comparing them to emissions from mobile and area sources and other large manufacturers. Not only do such presentations provide insights into pollution prevention and pollution control, they also serve to increase the community’s familiarity with the facility and convey its managers’ desire to answer questions and work with the community.
Providing General Information About Investigations and Cleanups—Contaminated Sites
In most cases, residents’ and officials’ questions and concerns about contaminated sites involve health: could the contamination make them sick? We find that providing generic information on investigation procedures to residents and officials can promote confidence that a site is being handled properly and that the data generated by an investigation is valid. Information, which can be provided in meetings or briefings with officials, residents, and other stakeholders, in media briefings, or in fact sheets, boosts neighbors’ confidence that:
- Standard procedures exist for collecting and managing samples.
- Laboratories follow strict and well-established protocols and quality control/quality assurance when analyzing samples.
- In most cases work plans and analytical findings are submitted to the U.S. EPA or a state regulatory agency for review and comment.
Remediation Creates New Questions
We find that it is often necessary to provide additional information to stakeholders when the selection of remedial actions is taking place. Remedial actions that are intrusive, such as excavating contaminated soil and taking it away in trucks, can spark concerns over the truck traffic and the potential generation of contaminated dust, which may require meetings or informational sessions to address public concerns. In-situ remediation technologies, or remedial actions based on risk-based corrective action objectives, administrative controls, or plume monitoring, may also require outreach efforts that will allow residents and officials to ask questions or raise their concerns about contamination that is treated, or left, in place. It is often necessary to hold meetings, provide briefings for officials and reporters, and/or to provide written information such as fact sheets if there is significant concern about the cleanup phase.
Case Three—Discovery of “New” Contamination Revives Old Anger
A company that recycled hazardous wastes purchased an existing recycling facility that was undergoing a RCRA Facilities Investigation/Corrective Measures Study (RFI/CMS). Contamination at this facility, most of which dated to before RCRA and most of which had been cleaned up at the time the company purchased it, had been of significant concern to the nearby community and to the many dairy farmers in the vicinity. Concerns erupted anew after the state agency released information indicating that Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) had been found in sediments of a creek that ran through the recycling facility. The PCBs were detected in low parts per million concentrations. A professional from Rose Hill Communications was hired by the client to conduct an assessment of the community and determine how best to communicate with some very angry and worried people. The assessment revealed that, since none of the previous owners of the facility had provided information on the remediation work that had been done, most of the residents and officials didn’t realize that the majority of the contamination had already been cleaned up. And residents and officials were particularly angry about the discovery of the PCBs in the creek sediments because they believed that their recent discovery indicated that the new owner of the facility was dumping even more hazardous waste on the property. This case culminated in a large public meeting preceded by numerous small-group and one-on-one meetings with persons who were especially concerned. Rose Hill Communications was able to defuse anger over the PCBs by demonstrating, through historical documents, that the PCBs were most likely residual contamination that hadn’t been detected when the initial samples were collected as part of the RFI/CMS process in the early 1980s because laboratories at that time were unable to detect PCBs at concentrations as low as the low parts per million. (Note: We made available to meeting participants several old memos authored by state agency personnel on the limitations of laboratory testing in the early 1980s.) The presence of the PCBs in the creek sediments required additional remediation—work that our client would be undertaking—but by providing the neighbors and residents and officials of the nearby town with a history of the work done at the site, the memos on the limitations on testing from the early 1980s, and the client’s plans for addressing the PCB-contaminated sediments, we were able not only to address stakeholders’ concerns, but to lay the groundwork for good, on-going communication between the client’s facility management and the community.
Crisis Situations Requiring Communication with the Media, Neighbors, and other Stakeholders
Most environmental attorneys are aware that crisis situations require careful but decisive handling, especially in regard to any information that is released to the media. There are many public relations and media relations firms and sole practitioners who specialize in crisis communication, and their services can be invaluable during or immediately following a crisis. However, in cases involving environmental issues, such as chemical releases, chemical exposures, discovery of contamination, or major enforcement actions, most general public relations or media relations firms and practitioners lack the knowledge of environmental and risk issues to be as effective as they need to be. Rose Hill Communications’ professionals, who collectively possess several decades of experience working in and with the media, provide five vital services in regard to crisis communication for attorneys and their clients. These services include:
- Preparing crisis communication plans.
- Providing on-the-ground support during a crisis.
- Preparing information, either before or during a crisis, which can be used by the company to ensure that the media and other parties, such as the neighbors, have accurate background and incident-specific information.
- Providing training on important crisis communication concepts and tasks for company or facility personnel.
- Performing community and stakeholder assessments after a crisis has occurred, both to determine how well managers communicated about the crisis and to identify outstanding questions or concerns that neighbors, officials, or others might have about the incident.
Preparing Crisis Communication Plans—We have prepared comprehensive crisis communication plans for several Fortune 500 clients’ North American operations. These plans were based on threat assessments for the company as a whole and for specific facilities. The plans themselves defined protocols for notifying all relevant managers throughout the company and facility and clear procedures for the review and approval of media and other public statements (e.g., who has to approve a statement, and if that person is not available, who else can approve the statement to ensure timely release).
The crisis communication plans we prepare also include:
- Checklists of people outside the company who should be notified (depending on the situation).
- Detailed instructions and checklists for members of designated “crisis communication teams.” The checklists help ensure that the many small, yet important, tasks, such as logging calls from reporters, neighbors, and others—tasks that can easily be forgotten in crisis situations if a team member isn’t already designated to perform them—are completed.
- Model statements and approved “boilerplate” language for news releases. These documents can then be customized with incident-specific information to allow for a quick response to the media.
- Model questions and answers with approved language to assist facility spokespersons in briefing the media.
- Other resource documents, such as fact sheets or “backgrounders” on the facility, the company, chemicals it handles, and the like, which can provide accurate information to reporters.
Many of our plans also include additional backup materials that managers can consult explaining media monitoring and techniques for remedying excessively negative or erroneous reporting by the media.
Providing On-The-Ground Support During a Crisis—Responding effectively to a crisis can be extremely labor intensive, especially in the initial stages when everyone is clamoring for information. Rose Hill Communications’ professionals have worked on a number of major crises, including incidents involving fatalities and off-site chemical releases resulting in mass evacuations, shelter-in-place directives, traffic disruption, and the like.
We coach spokespersons, assist in preparing statements and news releases, interact with the media, ensure that calls are being logged, serve as an initial liaison between corporate public affairs and legal department personnel and facility personnel (if corporate personnel are located at a distance and either aren’t already at the crisis site or intend to help manage the crisis from a distance), and set up and manage media briefings. If clients are using crisis communication plans that we helped develop or have their own crisis communication plans, we follow the already-established protocols regarding notifications and approvals of news statements. In cases in which no crisis communication plans have been devised, we use our own generic templates to minimize the likelihood that important elements of managing the crisis communication effort aren’t overlooked.
Preparing Information, Either Before or During a Crisis, Which Can Be Used By The Company to Ensure That The Media and Other Parties, Such as the Neighbors, Have Accurate Background or Incident-Specific Information—The fast pace with which crises typically unfold make it difficult to respond as quickly with approved information as neighbors, local officials, and, especially, the media, would like. Reporters, especially at the outset of an incident, will run with whatever information they can get, and if a facility or company doesn’t provide it, the media will turn to sources that may be less authoritative or who are pursuing an agenda that may not be in the company’s best interest.
Rose Hill Communications’ professionals counsel our clients to develop basic information on their businesses, facilities, products, and policies regarding safety and environmental practices and have this generic information approved by senior management and legal staff before a crisis occurs. Although it may be necessary to edit some of this basic information depending on the situation, approved “boilerplate” provides a starting point that can ensure a timelier response to the media than if company or facility management (or their attorneys) had to start from scratch. We find that when we provide what little confirmed information may be available during the first hours of a crisis along with general background information on the company or facility, reporters will use this information, sometimes verbatim. Further, by making background information available, not only can it squeeze out information that may come from hostile or non-authoritative sources, it allows both reporters and the public to better understand the company or facility, and it demonstrates the company’s or facility’s willingness to be forthcoming with information. These factors are key to setting a positive tone to otherwise negative coverage and ensuring that the media won’t be reporting that the company or facility, “had no comment,” “refused to talk to us,” or “said they didn’t have any information available for us yet”—phrases that can damage a company’s or facility’s credibility in the eyes of the media and the public.
Providing training on important crisis communication concepts and tasks for company or facility personnel—Rose Hill Communications’ personnel also design training programs that may run from half-day sessions to sessions lasting three or more days, depending on a client’s needs. We typically conduct training in conjunction with crisis communication plan development to ensure that company personnel understand the plan and how it should be used. We also conduct training for companies that have their own plans or are working on developing them. Concepts we cover include:
- How the public views a crisis and what comprises an adequate response.
- How reporters collect information and build stories.
- Basic spokesperson training and building key messages (Note: we don’t conduct actual media training; however, we can bring in professionals who do).
- Conducting media monitoring and assessing coverage.
- Addressing misinformation or excessively negative coverage.
We typically include multi-part, role-playing scenarios in our training sessions, which allow participants to better understand and practice the concepts and gain insights into how demanding responding to a crisis situation can be. In most cases, we create scenarios that are specific to the company or the industry for which the training is being held. Performing community and stakeholder assessments after a crisis has occurred, both to determine how well the company communicated about the crisis and to identify outstanding questions or concerns that neighbors, officials, or others might have about the incident—This type of work is often neglected, as companies seek to put the unpleasantness of a crisis behind them. However, we find that conducting interviews after a crisis is over provides valuable feedback on what the company did, or didn’t, do well, which can help managers improve their plans. And while feedback on the crisis communication effort is important, it is even more important to identify outstanding concerns, misinformation, or questions that haven’t been addressed. These concerns may not be raised in the near term, but many facilities find that such issues arise during permit renewals or to oppose plans for expanding a facility. As we’ve discussed in other sections of this page, it is far easier and success is far more likely when questions and concerns are addressed proactively—and well before they might otherwise erupt in acrimonious displays at formal public hearings. The following mini-cases illustrate how crises are viewed by neighbors based on how well facilities communicated during and after incidents.
Case One—Chemical Release and Evacuation of Neighborhood
Rose Hill Communications’ professionals conducted an assessment several months after the release of an air-toxic chemical from a facility resulted in the 2:00 a.m. evacuation of a nearby neighborhood. This was, on any scale, a very frightening event, even though no one was hurt. The managers of the facility, with our assistance, worked hard to provide information to the media and the community and even provided follow-up medical examinations for residents who wanted it. Surprisingly, even though the incident had happened only a few months before our follow-up assessment, nearly all of the persons interviewed—and all of the neighbors who were interviewed—mentioned the incident either fourth or fifth after other issues, or had to be asked specifically about the incident by the interviewers because they didn’t bring it upon on their own. The interviews revealed that the residents and officials were basically satisfied with the facility management’s response, and they were also satisfied with management’s explanation of what had happened and what the company was planning to do to minimize the likelihood that such an incident would recur. This is what we call “closure.” The persons who were interviewed hadn’t forgotten the incident, and they certainly weren’t pleased that it had happened, but because they were satisfied with how it was handled, several months later it was no longer top-of-mind and no longer an “active” concern to them.
Case Two—Plant Explosion and Impact on Nearby Residents
In stark contrast to Case One, Rose Hill Communications’ professionals found that an incident at another facility was still top-of-mind for residents of a nearby neighborhood—even though the incident had happened 10 years earlier. In this case, we were conducting interviews on behalf of a facility located near the facility that had the accident. When we asked residents of the neighborhood what they thought of their industrial neighbors, one of the first things most of them mentioned was an explosion at the other facility. This explosion, which cracked or blew out windows of some of the homes in the neighborhood (fortunately, no one was injured), was described in vivid, immediate terms; the sound of the explosion, the way the earth shook, the way the fire in the distance looked. Clearly, the memory of this event had not only not faded, it was still very much top-of-mind, despite the passage of a decade. In this particular case, the company that had the explosion never apologized or provided any real information about what had happened or what the company was doing to prevent similar incidents. The company did pay insurance claims for broken or cracked windows, but residents continued to worry that another blast could occur any time. Ironically, the facility where the explosion occurred had made a number of changes to minimize potential off-site consequences, either from explosions or from releases of air-toxic chemicals. Unfortunately, the facility’s managers hadn’t seen fit to share this information with their frightened neighbors.
About the Community and Stakeholder Assessment Process
What is a Community and Stakeholder Assessment?
Community and stakeholder assessment is a process for identifying stakeholders, their questions and concerns regarding one or more issues, their preferences for giving and receiving information, and the social, economic, and political contexts of the communities in which they live. Through the assessment process, Rose Hill Communications’ professionals can provide significant insights into the issues, groups, individuals, and community behaviors that environmental attorneys need to understand in order to assist their clients.
How is an Assessment Performed?
The assessment process typically involves conducting interviews and examining publicly available documents. Interviews are performed of a cross-section of persons within the community in question or who have knowledge of the community. These interviews may be conducted in person or over the phone. Document research includes reviewing documents, such as local newspaper stories and stories in other local publications and newsletters (on-line, in hard-copy form, and in blog commentary), demographic data, and land use and economic development plans, as well as permit applications and other documents from state or federal environmental agencies either on file in local repositories or obtained through FOIA requests.
Don’t Facility Personnel Already Know the Community?
Facility personnel may have some acquaintance with the community—it’s certainly helpful if they do—but rarely have they studied it with the rigor of the assessment process or with an eye to understanding how community dynamics can affect the public’s view of industry or a specific facility or the factors that may drive them to question or oppose facility- or project-related activities. We have never met a facility-based manager, no matter how well acquainted they believe that they are with their host community, who hasn’t been surprised by some of the findings we make during the assessment process. And nowadays, most managers live outside the community in which the facility is located. Thus, other than (possibly) reading the local paper or having met certain officials, such as the mayor and Fire Chief, they only know what they see along the routes they drive to and from work. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of facility management; but managers typically have more than enough on their plates simply running their plants without conducting interviews of their neighbors. The primarily goal of the assessment process is to help managers understand the communities in which they are located, the stakeholders who are most interested in their facilities, and the sensitivities that, if triggered, could lead to community-wide concerns so that whatever outreach work managers do perform will provide the best results.
Can Assessments Be Conducted Without Interviews?
Yes. Rose Hill Communications’ professionals also perform “documents-only” assessments, which may be conducted entirely on-line or include visits to the community for document review, but that don’t involve conducting interviews. Documents-only assessments are often used in the following cases:
- Before or during a lawsuit, particularly if the judge has prohibited a defendant from having contact with persons who may be involved in the trial.
- When a company’s owners are considering the purchase of another company, facility, or property, but prefer that competitors or others not know about such plans early on.
- When a client has questions about a community, its politics, social and economic characteristics, and attitudes toward industry or environmental issues, but is concerned that conducting formal interviews could trigger community concerns.
Although we prefer to conduct traditional assessments that include interviews—we like to be able to relate information to our clients using stakeholders’ own words—documents-only assessments provide reliable information that will assist clients and their attorneys in making good decisions.
How Long Do Assessments Take?
The amount of time required depends on the complexity of the community and the complexity and/or importance of the issue of concern. Detailed assessments of complex issues in complex communities can take a month or more of research and analysis to provide the information necessary for confident decision making. In complex communities, we prefer to take an iterative approach, whereby we conduct a round of interviews and research and compile and analyze the information we’ve gathered. Based on our findings, and often, in consultation with the client and the client’s attorneys, we then conduct additional interviews and research to follow up on leads revealed in the first round, and to further test and confirm or discard tentative conclusions. In cases in which a client simply wants to know whether residents or officials in a community have concerns about—for example—an upcoming permitting action, sufficient information to answer that question can often be gathered in as little as two or three days. Rose Hill Communications’ professionals also often conduct what we call “screening assessments.” Screening assessments involve a quick review and analysis of information about a community and/or an issue that allows us, in consultation with attorneys and their clients, to determine whether the findings suggest the need for additional assessment at that particular time.
When Should Assessments Be Performed?
Assessments can be performed either after concerns or questions are raised or as planning tools to determine how best a client might go about introducing plans for a new facility, the cleanup of a newly identified contaminated site, or other future activities, so they can address questions and concerns before they escalate into serious opposition.
Can Assessments Predict Community Responses?
Yes—because the assessment process includes gathering and analyzing information on how communities and the stakeholders within them respond to perceived threats or opportunities, assessments have predictive value. Thus, not only can an assessment provide insights into the likelihood of questions or concerns being raised in response—for example—to a facility expansion or attempts to site a new facility, it can also suggest likely behaviors that a client may face.