Lesson 10: Landfill Community Relations Programs

This is the 10th lesson in the independent learning correspondence course on municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills. One lesson in this 12-part series will be published in Waste Age magazine each month throughout the year.

If you are interested in taking the course for two continuing education credits (CEUs), send a check (payable to the University of Wisconsin) for $149 to Phil O'Leary, Department of Engineering Professional Development, University of Wisconsin, 432 N. Lake Street, Madison, WI 53706. Phone (608) 262-0493. E-mail: [email protected]. Website: www.wasteage.com.

Course registration can occur at anytime until December 2006. Previous lessons will be sent to you.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Understand the importance of good community relations to landfill siting and operations.

  2. Understand techniques for involving the public in the landfill process.

  3. Understand the importance of developing and implementing a community-focused siting and operation strategy.

Click here to download PDF of Course 10 with figures. (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

A landfill may be seen as a tremendous public asset or a risky local liability. Public opinion before, during and after a facility's life can directly affect the landfill owner's bottom line. Losing public support also can lead to lawsuits, increased regulatory scrutiny and opposition to expansions or new sites — even for a well-designed and operated facility.

Problems at landfills with poor community relations often are more difficult to manage because the public does not trust that the operator is committed to protecting public health. But when relations are positive, operators usually are given more support and trust if a problem arises.

Building positive community relations should start before the site is chosen. As mentioned in earlier lessons, the traditional “decide-announce-defend” siting model still may work when acquiring a site, but it often leads to mistrust and opposition during landfill operations. It is better to involve the public at all stages of landfill siting and operation. An open communication process builds public trust in the operator's technical skills and has been shown to reduce long-term opposition.

Creating a Siting Strategy

Most experts agree that no perfect siting model exists. Nevertheless, successful sitings do offer insight into which strategies should be pursued and how public officials can resolve difficult issues. The following lessons have been drawn from actual sitings as described in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., “Decision-makers Guide to Solid Waste Management, Volume II.” Tips include:

  • Successful siting efforts require the political and technical expertise of both public officials and citizens.

  • Appropriate public sectors should be consulted at every stage of the decision-making process.

  • Successful sitings require an informed and thorough analysis; a good risk-communication program establishes an information exchange among various participants.

  • Credible and accurate technical information is crucial to resolving conflicts in the siting process.

  • The siting process must be flexible; all characteristics are negotiable.

  • Careful planning and effective management are essential for successful siting.

  • The state plays an important role in supporting an effective siting process.

  • All information, written or oral, must be honest.

  • Siting may involve compensation for real and perceived local impacts.

Who Is the Public?

The first step in designing a public involvement program is to acknowledge that the public is not a single entity. Many interests and groups comprise the various public segments. Some interests or groups are well-established, such as professional associations, political parties, churches, some social groups and homeowners' associations. Other groups are newly established because their members have a common, continuing interest in the proposed community action.

Community members might become involved in siting for several reasons:

  • Proximity: People who live in the immediate vicinity of a facility may believe that their health and environment are threatened.

  • Economic impact: People are concerned about what effects waste problems might have on municipal services and on economic development.

  • Users: Prospective facility users may become involved if their access to the facility is threatened.

  • Social and environmental issues: People may become involved because of larger community issues, such as air and water pollution or a desire to force a community to initiate waste reduction or recycling programs.

  • Values: When questions of health or safety reach a high level of polarization, citizens often discuss waste issues in terms of ethics or moral values.

  • Legal mandates: Local and state governmental agencies play the most significant roles in sitings. However, federal agencies may become participants, too, depending on the issues.

Various public segments will have different involvement levels based on different roles, technical expertise, and willingness to commit time, energy and, in some cases, money [See “Levels of Public Sector Involvement,” below].

Different types of public involvement also may be required depending on the group. A steering committee or technical advisory committee can help to design necessary studies, perform technical reviews, rank consulting firms and review site rankings. Because individuals and groups will differ in the amount of time and energy they are willing to invest, a variety of public participation opportunities should be offered to accommodate varying levels of interest and expertise.

The size and composition of the involved public also will change over time. Different groups and interests will be represented at different stages of the siting process.

Including the Public

Experience from successful sitings shows that involving the public is as important to success as performing good technical studies. Effective public involvement requires integrating public concerns and values at every stage of the siting process. Token participation will not buy credibility and may even offend the public more than if there had been no consultation at all.

Most experienced practitioners prepare a formal public involvement plan at the beginning of any decision-making process. There are three major reasons for developing a public involvement plan:

  1. Preparing a plan forces careful analysis of how the public fits into the siting process.

  2. Preparing a plan provides a consultation mechanism among the various agencies and entities that have a stake in the program.

  3. A plan communicates to the public what to expect, helping to establish the developer's credibility.

Public Involvement

Public involvement is a two-way dialogue that involves both getting information out to the public and getting back ideas, issues and concerns from the public. For convenience, it is easier to divide the public involvement process into two categories:

  1. Information techniques (getting information to the public) and

  2. Participation techniques (getting information from the public).

Once the public has been informed, forums or mechanisms should be provided so that the public can express issues or concerns. No single public involvement program will meet the needs of all circumstances. It also is important to clearly define the goals of public participation and to determine which segments of the public should be addressed at various stages in the siting process.

In developing a public involvement plan, observe the following precautions:

  • Advisory groups can be very helpful, but be aware of their limitations. Members must be certain of the group's charter and should not spend so much time agreeing on procedures that people with substantial concerns become alienated.

  • Public information materials should provide useful, objective information. Materials should not be public relations pieces aimed at selling a particular point of view.

  • Play it straight with the media. Provide all information objectively and factually.

  • Promptly respond to people in response to their comments. Without feedback, siters provide no rewards to stimulate further public participation.

  • Never surprise elected officials. Never announce that a site has been selected in an official's district without briefing him or her first.

Communicating Effectively

Risk communication also is a two-way information exchange between risk managers and the public about a particular issue. During this exchange, it is crucial for developers to listen and learn from the public.

The primary goal of risk communication is to help participants, and observers who may become participants, make informed contributions to the decision-making process. As stated in 1989 by the National Research Council publication, “Improving Risk Communication,” “Risk communication is successful only to the extent that it raises the level of understanding of relevant issues or actions, and satisfies those involved that are adequately informed within the limits of available knowledge.”

In siting, communicators need to tell the public about any known environmental and health risks associated with the facility, and what precautions are being taken to manage those risks.

Operators also need to consider precautions to avoid pitfalls in developing a risk communication program:

  1. Do not assume that developing a risk-management communication program will solve all siting process problems.

  2. Do not assume that developing an effective risk communication program is an easy task.

  3. Do not assume that developing a risk communication program guarantees public acceptance of the risks.

Developing a risk communication program at the beginning of the siting process will increase the likelihood that the public has access to useful information when it is needed most. The EPA's “Seven Rules of Risk Communication” [on page 61] can be used as a guide.

Communication also should be integrated into the public involvement plan. Keep a written record of risk communication activities to provide a database for evaluating the program's effectiveness.

The six steps to follow when developing a risk communication program are:

  1. Identify the risk communication objectives for each step in the siting process.

  2. Determine the information exchange needed to complete each step in the siting process.

  3. Identify the groups with whom information must be exchanged.

  4. Develop appropriate risk messages for each targeted audience.

  5. Identify the appropriate channels for communicating risks to various segments of the public.

  6. Evaluate efforts and modify approach as needed.

Building Credibility

Public mistrust of technical information is a major siting issue. Thus, communicating accurate technical information is crucial. Two of the most important goals for risk communicators are building credibility of technical information in the public's eyes and improving the relevance of technical studies to public concerns.

People assume that once an issue is controversial, all sides are using technical information in an effort to “win,” or to convince the public. Mistrust seems to be characteristic of political conflict. To protect and maintain the credibility of technical information throughout the siting process, steps must be taken before a situation becomes controversial. If a siting issue becomes polarized and program developers are seen as advocates, restoring credibility can be difficult. When a final choice is made, advocacy is expected. To help build credibility for technical information:

  • Anticipate the issues that will emerge;

  • Solicit public participation in developing the study plan;

  • Validate methodological assumptions;

  • Invite public involvement in selecting consultants;

  • Provide technical assistance to the public;

  • Present technical information in language for a nontechnical audience;

  • Use an outside jointly chosen impartial expert to review technical studies; and

  • Discuss uncertainties and assumptions openly.

Although these suggestions can help protect the credibility of technical information, it will not remove all siting and credibility challenges. For example, when talking only to a leadership group, siters should not leave out any key interests, as it may come back to haunt them.

Addressing Negative Impacts

Few projects today are undertaken without some public controversy. Some public policy positions, no matter how sensitive to residents' concerns, are bound to make some people feel as if they will be negatively impacted. Concerns may be real or perceived. So to successfully site a solid waste facility, it is necessary to find an immediate and direct means of resolving controversial issues. Planning for mitigation is a practical component of any solid waste project. Consider the following mitigation principles:

  • Affected people want equivalent benefits. People who experience adverse impacts expect the attention of local government and may demand an equivalent share of the project benefits to offset the ill effects.

  • The present risk level is assumed to be zero. Any change in risk will be perceived as a potentially negative impact because people assume the present situation is without risk, or at least assume that risk already has been taken into account.

  • Many mitigation issues are about procedure. When people are not sure of a project's impact, they are very concerned with procedural protection and the decision-makers' credibility.

Common solid waste facility concerns — both perceived and real — that may require some mitigation include process issues, health risks, environmental issues and local impacts.

Process issues include immediate access to facility management; representation on the facility's governing board; funds for independent review of technical studies; and funds for a monitoring program. Environmental issues include air pollution, odor, litter, groundwater, noise, dust, visual impact, wetlands protection and waste flow reduction. Local impacts include real or perceived negative neighborhood image/property value. The economic impact on project funding for additional technical studies or monitoring should be considered and discussed.

Developing an effective program to address impacts on the community requires careful planning to alleviate concerns and significantly reduce public controversy. This, in turn, can increase the chances of successful siting.

The basic steps in planning for impacts are:

  1. Identify the decision-making process for mitigation issues.

  2. Identify the mitigation issues that are likely to arise.

  3. Identify concerned public segments for each issue.

  4. Identify forums of resolving mitigation issues with affected people.

  5. Integrate required mitigation activities into the public involvement plan.

Evaluating Your Strategy

Project leaders make important decisions throughout the siting process based on their judgment of the effectiveness of specific siting activities. Although there is no substitute for good judgment, evaluation can be a useful management tool to provide timely, cost-effective information that will improve the effectiveness of major siting activities.

Evaluation is not an easy task. Many of the effects of the siting strategy will be difficult to measure; the strategy may succeed on one objective while fail on another. Evaluation may not provide all of the answers, but it can provide important feedback.

Evaluation strategies can differ, depending on the type of information collected, scope of the issues addressed and measurement techniques used. It is important to identify points in the siting process where evaluation will be the most cost-effective. People often form opinions at the beginning of the siting process, so it makes sense to pay careful attention to early siting activities.

Evaluations have different objectives, and several designs are available. Nevertheless, the six-step process below can help to develop a solid foundation for improving most siting strategies.

  1. Set goals and objectives.

  2. Determine information needs for the evaluation.

  3. Collect the information.

  4. Analyze the data.

  5. Draw conclusions.

  6. Review and adjust goals and objectives.

Maintaining Public Support

Positive public support gained through effective siting can decrease rapidly if problems develop during site operation. Even nuisance conditions that don't affect public health, such as wind blown paper or odors, can turn the public against the operation if problems are not quickly corrected. The landfill operating plan should anticipate high wind days or other operating issues, and prescribe mitigation techniques to reduce or eliminate the problem as part of daily operations. Sloppy operations may cause neighbors to question whether groundwater monitoring or other public health systems are being properly maintained.

Planning For A Crisis

Even well-run landfill can develop a crisis. In her Waste Age article, “Have Your Ducks in a Row Before a Crisis” [See June 2001, page 20], author Vanessa Rugo urged waste companies to have an immediate action plan ready to minimize damage, convey a sense of control and instill public confidence. She also suggests a four-step process to prepare businesses to communicate properly:

  1. Identify a core crisis team with designated responsibilities.

  2. Get the team organized to act.

  3. Identify and train a media spokesperson.

  4. Communicate with all audiences affected by the crisis as well as those who should be alerted to the situation.

Implementing these steps and having a plan in place before siting and during evaluation will help to insure that public confidence is maintained and grows as the crisis is addressed.

Phil O'Leary and Patrick Walsh are solid waste specialists with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


There are no easy prescriptions for successful risk communication. However, those who have studied and participated in recent debates about risk generally agree on seven cardinal rules. These rules apply equally well to the public and private sectors. Although many of the rules may seem obvious, they are continually and consistently violated in practice. Thus, a useful way to read these rules is to focus on why they are frequently not followed.

  1. Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner.

  2. Plan carefully and evaluate your efforts.

  3. Listen to the public's specific concerns.

  4. Be honest, frank and open.

  5. Coordinate and collaborate with other credible sources.

  6. Meet the needs of the media.

  7. Speak clearly and with compassion.

Source: U.S. EPA, “Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication,” 1988