10 Stakeholder Concerns
This topic provides some tools that you can use in communicating with affected property owners or communities with regard to the risks that are specific to petroleum contamination as measured by TPH. The essentials of a community engagement plan are presented and can be tailored to fit most situations. Stakeholder identification and communication should begin as early as possible in the project.
Communicating the risks associated with a petroleum-contaminated site to people unfamiliar with environmental sciences can be difficult. This difficulty is compounded by the nature of TPH relative to indicator compounds; TPH can be measured and quantified, but its composition can change over time and distance (see TPH Fundamentals). This makes communicating the risks associated with contamination as measured by TPH challenging.
Stakeholder concerns associated with TPH investigations have been listed in many publications, including information provided by many state regulatory agencies. These resources commonly cite the following factors to keep in mind when conducting TPH investigations:
- importance of timely communication with the community
- need for sensitivity in, and training for, communicating with the public
- ability to translate and communicate technical information and public health issues into a format that is easily understood by the general public
- sensitivity to other impacts to public property, including property value, access, and private property rights
- need to interact with local organizations and government agencies that may have widely varying responsibilities for, and methods of, dealing with TPH (from inaction to emergency response levels)
As with any environmental site, stakeholders may have questions and concerns related to human health. At TPH sites in particular, gases such as methane may be generated in the subsurface as a byproduct of biodegradation and may require additional communication of risk. Another concern at TPH projects is the potential for public mistrust of the use of modeling to make management decisions, particularly if no investigation is implemented as a result. Terms such as “uncertainty,” when used in the context of modeling, may be questioned as a means to avoid doing additional work or to minimize cost. Stakeholders may also request explanation of how the model works and the assumptions used in modeling.
Property owners are also usually concerned about devaluation of their properties. Generally, property owners and other stakeholders are concerned that remedial actions will be minimized or the implementation schedule extended to reduce costs to the responsible party. At TPH-contaminated sites, stakeholders may have concerns when monitored natural attenuation (MNA) is implemented as the remedy or when TPH is present, but the typical indicator compounds are absent, or if the site has been closed, based on a risk evaluation. This concern may be elevated when MNA is selected as a result of accepted modeling results or site screening specific to petroleum, especially if the results are not verified through future monitoring or sampling.
Sites that have TPH contamination issues can be located in areas that have the potential to affect the public (near residences and commercial establishments, for example). For TPH projects, community stakeholders have many concerns, some of them unique. For instance, stakeholders may have questions or concerns arising from a lack of understanding of TPH biodegradation, including why and how a passive approach will address a TPH problem. The perceived or actual lack of data can create uncertainty that may result in future problems for landowners, tenants, and other stakeholders (during future property transactions, for example).
It is critical to identify all stakeholders involved for a TPH project. In addition to property owners (including their leaseholders and tenants) and other community members, stakeholders that should be kept informed of site activities may include:
- water utilities
- law enforcement
- neighborhood associations
- local government agencies—county and city governments or tribal councils
- health departments and health care providers
It is always best to be as inclusive as possible and reach out to all potentially interested parties through various means of communication. Be aware that varying levels of technical understanding exist within the community and be prepared to communicate at those levels. Outreach may never be 100% successful—despite the investigator’s best efforts, some in the community may assert that they were left out of a communications effort or process.
10.1 Community Engagement Plans
10.1.1 Know Your Agency’s Policies
Although a variety of material is readily available on community engagement and risk communication, public agency staff should become familiar with their agency’s guidance and policies and work closely with community engagement staff, if available. Existing engagement plans or guidance can be tailored to TPH-specific projects.
The purpose of a community engagement plan (CEP) is to explain the process by which site-related information will be provided to the community in a formal and coordinated manner. In many cases, it is the responsible party that prepares the CEP with approval and oversight from the regulatory body. The plan should be tailored to address risk to the community as a whole and to the individuals whose properties may be adversely affected. At the start of the community engagement process, strive for consensus among responsible parties, regulators, and other authorities on appropriate levels of outreach and thoroughly document outreach activities. At a TPH project, information that must be conveyed to the community can be especially complex because of the multiple media affected, and the transport mechanisms involved, and because TPH data are rarely the only mechanism used to evaluate risk. The CEP should be dynamic and allow for additional stakeholders and communication methods to be identified as the project progresses. The information provided to stakeholders should be in simplified terms so that community members without specialized knowledge can understand what to expect regarding communication, investigation, risk, mitigation, and remediation. The CEP should also identify sources of technical assistance for concerned citizens and explain how stakeholders can obtain answers to technical questions.
Ensuring that the community has essential information and access to technical resources will allow community members to develop the understanding needed to make informed decisions related to their personal risk. The CEP is a living document and is most effective when it is created early in the process and updated or revised as new information on site or community conditions becomes available or additional stakeholders are identified.
10.1.2 Elements of a Community Engagement Plan
10.2 Tools for Effective Community Engagement
Input on communication preferences should be sought from the community. This allows regulators and other environmental professionals the opportunity to identify the most appropriate community engagement tools. These tools can then be added as an appendix to the CEP as appropriate. This subsection describes some community engagement tools.
10.3 Risk Communication
Effective risk communication is an important component of all outreach efforts. To assist in gaining the trust of the public, it is essential to provide clear and understandable descriptions of the issues, including potential risks. If professional communications personnel are available, involve them in the risk communication process. For communicating risks associated with all contaminated sites, not just TPH-related sites, USEPA 1998 provides the following points:
- Accept and involve the public as a legitimate partner.
- Listen to the audience.
- Be honest, frank, and open.
- Coordinate and collaborate with credible sources.
- Meet the needs of the media.
- Speak clearly and with compassion.
- Plan carefully and evaluate performance.
Those involved in communicating the risk posed by TPH should be familiar with TPH concepts, which are discussed more fully in the TPH Fundamentals and Conceptual Site Models sections. Effective risk communication clearly presents these concepts to stakeholders. Additionally, it may be helpful to place potential risks posed by TPH in context with potential risks posed by household products and ambient air.
10.3.1 Communicating the Risk
- Establish trust and credibility.
- Provide information to enable residents and other stakeholders to make decisions regarding TPH impacts.
- Create open and ongoing lines of communication.
- Secure continued access to buildings for investigation and monitoring.
- Limit risk of legal action.
Avoid overly technical terms in discussing potential risk with the general public. Terms such as “vadose zone,” “probes,” and “10-6 excess cancer risk” don’t mean much to nontechnical people; even the concept of “groundwater” may be unfamiliar to some stakeholders. Other terms like “free product” may actually sound good to the public. Table 10-2 provides some examples of technical terms made simpler.
Table 10‑2. Technical terms made simpler
|Plain Language Term
|Soil above the water table
|Free product, LNAPL
|Fuel not dissolved in water
|Saturated zone, aquifer
|Groundwater, water table
|A natural process in which bacteria break down organic compounds (such as petroleum) in the soil for energy
|Multiple lines of evidence
|Using all available information in decision making
10.4 Communicating Risk Associated with TPH
TPH-contaminated sites may be perceived as different from other types of environmental contamination, as previously discussed, which may make answering questions difficult. When communicating with the public on TPH issues, you may encounter many emotions.
The following information is adapted from Two Tools for Responding to Any Difficult Question/Statement on Any Issue from Any Stakeholder in Any Setting, reprinted by the Navy and Marine Corps Health Center US Navy 2011. This brief document provides a “Generic Category Tool for Responding to Challenging Questions,” which is a table of 12 categories of challenging questions and the appropriate response for each type of question. When communicating with the public on TPH issues, you may encounter many emotions—anger, confusion, fear, or others. To communicate effectively with an emotional person, four approaches are helpful:
- Empathy: You must try to think like they are thinking. Remove yourself from your own feelings and put yourself in their shoes. Using empathy statements is helpful, but they must be relevant. Saying things such as “I live in this community” or “My child also attends that school” shows the public that you empathize with their situation.
- Conclusion: In risk communication, the conclusion must be short, simple, and precede the facts that support the conclusion. The conclusion should address the underlying point of the question or statement. Examples of good conclusions include the following:
- “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”
- We don’t plan further cleanup actions.”
- “The vapors do not pose a significant risk.”
- We’ve been sharing all the information with you.”
- Facts: Facts support your conclusions. Usually one, two, or three facts are sufficient. It is crucial that you observe your audience when giving facts to ensure that they are listening. If they are not listening, stop talking about your facts and find out why they are not listening. Ask:
- “Am I being clear?”
- “Do you have any questions or concerns?”
- Future action: Future action, if applicable, should include a timing factor. Whatever your future action is, you should let the stakeholders know that they will continue to be involved and that their continued involvement is important, until their issues have been resolved. Examples of good future action statements are:
- “I don’t know, but I’ll call you tomorrow.”
- “I’ll be happy to talk to you more after the meeting.”
- “There’s more information on this on our website/brochure/fact sheet/Facebook.”
- “We won’t know for at least six months, but I’ll be glad to call/e-mail once a month on our latest outlook.”
10.5 VOCs in Commonly Used Products
When discussing risks associated with TPH, the concept of “background” contamination will likely arise. Including a discussion of common sources of contaminants, especially petroleum compounds, may be helpful. Many household products contain petroleum compounds that can be sources of TPH contamination. The following list
Table 10‑3. Common household products that contain petroleum compounds
|Common Household Products that Contain Petroleum Compounds
|Fuel containers (or devices using gasoline, kerosene, fuel oil, and products with petroleum distillates, lantern fuel)
|Paint thinner, oil-based stains and paint, lacquer thinner
|Aerosol or liquid insect pest products
|Blacktop driveway sealer
|Liquid paint stripper
|Vaseline, lip balm, cosmetics
|Fuel injector cleaner (aerosol or liquid)
|Liquid stainless-steel cleaner
It may be helpful to develop a fact sheet to effectively communicate information regarding common household products that contain petroleum compounds. One example of this type of communication is the New York Department of Health Fact Sheet on Volatile Organic Compounds in Commonly Used Products NYDOH 2007.
10.6 Public Notification of Sampling
Owners and tenants of buildings to be sampled should be notified in advance of sampling activities. While respecting the privacy of property owners and tenants, as appropriate, also notify the surrounding community of pending sampling. Individual letters, fact sheets, and other appropriate materials stating that sampling is planned and explaining how and when the sampling will occur should be mailed to owners, tenants, and the community.
Owners of private property, and tenants and leaseholders in many instances, have the right to deny access to private property. In cases where the public welfare is at stake, access to private property may be gained through other means (such as legal action). It is often easier to attempt to collect data from adjacent public areas or rights-of-way, if possible and appropriate, rather than engage in protracted legal battles that can have negative consequences in the public domain.
Any data generated from sampling should be provided to individual owners, tenants, and other stakeholders, as appropriate. State regulatory agencies may have specific guidelines or regulations on the transmittal of data to the public. Once any data are submitted to a governmental regulatory agency, it may be considered an open public record that must be provided to any individual requesting that information under public law. Private property data being open to any and all public review may be one reason why property owners, sometimes at the urging of their legal counsel, are reluctant to allow sampling to be conducted on their property.
10.7 TPH Concepts Explained
Other portions of this guidance provide in-depth details of TPH concepts and serve as a resource for understanding TPH. Some difficult concepts, however, may require additional explanation in a nontechnical format for nontechnical readers. This section focuses on explaining those concepts in simple terms for the benefit of nontechnical stakeholders, managers, and regulators.