Posted: November 10, 2001
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Article SummaryThis short article starts with the assumption that coercion is an unreliable way to site controversial facilities, and tries to offer some better answers grounded in risk communication. An earlier and much longer treatment of the same themes can be found in “Getting to Maybe: Some Communications Aspects of Siting Hazardous Waste Facilities.”

Siting Controversial Facilities:
Some Principles, Paradoxes, and Heresies

Consensus, July 1992, p. 2

Until fairly recently, the most efficient way to site potentially controversial facilities was coercion (often mixed with deception). It’s good news for democracy that this strategy is no longer effective, that neighborhoods have become skilled at stopping such facilities – from incinerators to airports. But coercion has not yet been replaced with another siting strategy that works – and sometimes we do need incinerators and airports. What would an effective non-coercive siting strategy look like?

In this short article I want to list a few principles of non-coercive siting. For space reasons, I will leave out the obvious ones – like not lying to people – and skip right to the ones that are debatable, paradoxical, heretical, or just ignored most of the time. These principles do not guarantee successful non-coercive siting. (Coercion doesn’t always work either.) But they should help.

Non-coercive siting is voluntary siting.

If the community doesn’t have a veto, you’re doing coercion with window-dressing. This doesn’t mean that any single individual can stop a facility, but the essence of non-coercive siting is the community’s right (through referendum, government, blue-ribbon commission, or whatever) to say “no” – not just negotiate how the facility will operate, but whether it will operate. Empowering the community to make a pain of itself over the details without empowering it to end the negotiation with a decisive negative is a recipe for stalemate. But when communities have the right to say “no,” saying “maybe” is literally a smaller risk; we all listen better and bargain fairer when we know we can walk. Ironically, the community typically does have a de facto veto. By failing to acknowledge this, the developer sets itself up with the least promising of negotiating partners: a community that is wrongly convinced the fix is in and is desperately trying to halt the juggernaut.

Complex technical siting criteria are incompatible with non-coercive siting.

If you insist on finding the safest site, you will have to force it down the throats of the current occupants. Benign facilities are sited through market mechanisms. We zone out the places where they don’t belong, leaving lots of other places where they are equally acceptable. By contrast, a facility that is dangerous enough that you have to find the safest spot in the area for it is dangerous enough that no reasonable person would want that spot next door. You can’t set up scores of siting criteria that prohibit the facility near waterfowl and hospitals, spend years and millions of dollars finding just the right site, and then tell me I’m being silly to object to it in my back yard.

Communities assess risk more in terms of outrage than of hazard.

Any risk controversy can be divided into a technical dimension and a moral-emotional dimension. The key technical issue is how much damage is being done to health or environment. The key moral-emotional issues are such matters as these: Who benefits? Who’s in control? Is it fair? Can I trust the people in charge? Do they respond respectfully to my concerns? If you label these two issue clusters “hazard” and “outrage” respectively, the public is far more preoccupied with outrage than with hazard. The engine that propels the fight over safe vs. dangerous, in other words, is good vs. evil. Developers who are insensitive to outrage are unlikely to persuade the community that the hazard is minimal.

Accountability must replace trust as the basis for non-coercive siting.

It is commonplace to observe that communities don’t trust developers or regulatory agencies – with good reason. The usual response to this observation is to try to build trust. But the paradox of trust is that the more you ask for it, the less you get it; “trust me” is the mantra of the sleazy used car salesman. Instead of asking to be trusted or insisting that they are regulated, developers must find ways to be accountable. People trust contract law much more than regulatory law; contracts share power, while regulations protect victims. A negotiated contract must provide for community oversight of the facility, specify tolerances that must not be exceeded and penalties if they are, and guarantee health and environmental protection as well as compensation.

Negotiation forces both sides to moderate their claims.

Legal and political battles feed on exaggeration; those trying to stop the facility have every reason to exaggerate how bad it is, while those trying to build it have every reason to exaggerate how good it is. Negotiation forces both sides to back off their exaggerations. Suppose the developer has been insisting in the media that the facility will never emit detectable amounts of dimethylmeatloaf. “Good,” says the community negotiators, “then let’s write a contract with a stipulated penalty of $100 million if the monitors detect dimethylmeatloaf.” The developer will quickly concede that “never” means seldom and “none” means a little. The community must similarly abandon its claim that the emissions will be sky-high and constant as it fights for a negotiated standard that is low and infrequent.

The siting stalemate hasn’t been such a bad thing, and it will end when developers want their sites badly enough.

Our inability to site hazardous waste facilities over the past two decades has led to improvements in source reduction, recycling, facility design and monitoring, and siting itself. We need fewer hazardous waste facilities today than we thought we needed (desperately) 20 years ago. The same is true in many other areas of stalemated siting, raising the question of whether developers are right when they say they’re desperate. There is also the question of whether they’re sincere. Developers know that non-coercive siting will be more expensive than coercive siting used to be – at least at the start, until competition among communities forces the price down. So far, they seem to prefer the stalemate to paying the price. Some kinds of facilities may actually be so hazardous (or otherwise damaging) that no sane community would accept them voluntarily. But any facility that a calm, rational, informed, and empowered community might find acceptable can be sited non-coercively – when its developer becomes (as realtors say) “motivated” enough to offer the sort of negotiations a calm, rational, informed, and empowered community ought to take seriously.

Copyright © 1992 by Peter M. Sandman

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