Ignoring Environmental Justice Concerns is Risky Business

What does the community really think about your new project?

By Deidre Sanders

The Environmental Justice movement seeks to ensure that minority and low income communities are environmentally and economically sustainable. The movement arose when members of such communities concluded that their towns and neighborhoods were disproportionately likely to host high impact industrial land uses that, from their view, did not benefit their communities. How can the business community respond to such claims?  Many companies have historically chosen to ignore community concerns. Others have tried to appease  concerns without directly addressing them. While this can save money over the short term, it can also result in unexpected project delays and higher long-term costs. Consider, for example, the story of this fictional company, Enterpresia, whose story plays out over and over again.

Business as usual – the cost of not noticing change

Enterpresia is ready to begin construction on a development project that will site (or expand) a regulated emitting facility in a community with a mostly minority and significantly low-income population. Company leaders are confident of the project’s success because of the groundwork laid with the local political and economic leaders. This work emphasized the jobs created by the facility during its construction, projected years of operation and future tax revenue. The project manager has assured the company’s senior leaders that the project meets all local zoning requirements, is fully permitted by the requisite agencies, and will be delivered on time and on budget. The public relations consultant reports that she has conducted outreach to all of the local elected officials and business leaders and held open houses to inform the interested public about the project. She states that while a few individuals expressed concern about the impact of construction on the adjacent community, overall the meetings were sparsely attended. The project did not appear to attract much interest or concern.

But, a few days before construction begins, several hundred very agitated people begin picketing the site and Enterpresia company headquarters. They have signs that assert the company is racist and is poisoning their community. Through bullhorns, they declare that their communities are being targeted by industry and regulatory officials for “dirty” industrial facilities like Enterpresia’s. In addition to the protestors, local media representatives have also descended on the company’s headquarters and the project site and are demanding that Enterpresia explain why it is siting a potentially harmful facility in a vulnerable and disadvantaged community.

Enterpresia’s initial response through its public relations spokesperson is to minimize and dismiss the protestors’ concerns as emotional, irrational, and resulting from a lack of understanding. The company’s spokesperson goes on to explain that the facility will be fully compliant with all environmental laws and regulations, and that its overall environmental impact will not be significant. Furthermore, they argue that the facility poses no danger to the community, and in fact, will benefit the community by providing jobs and tax revenue to support the local economy. However, instead of defusing the situation and reassuring community members, Enterpresia’s public statements have had the opposite affect. Company leaders are astonished to find that community members become increasingly impassioned in their opposition. As a result, support from elected leaders begins to wane and regulators declare their intention to reexamine the project’s permits in the wake of expressed community concerns.

The project is now delayed for at least several months, and the outcome of the permit review is likely to result in additional costs for more mitigation which will adversely impact the budget and could increase operating costs. Enterpresia has decided to review the competitiveness of this project in the wake of these developments and reassess its options given this new uncertainty.

How could this have been anticipated?

Whether siting a new facility or modifying the permit of an existing facility, project proponents need to include the community beyond their project footprint as part of their risk assessment. Some project developers may refer generically to “socioeconomics” and propose plans to “overcome community resistance” to their projects, but in general, they do not integrate these concerns into their risk assessments. Today’s project developers need to accept that the support of local elected and business leaders does not ensure local support. If a company stops short on due diligence, it faces increasing risks down the road.

If “overcoming community resistance” to a project does not include addressing legitimate concerns regarding environmental and public health impacts, a company/facility may risk recurring resistance to its operations from the community and close regulatory scrutiny and inquiry even after a permit is issued.

Over time, communities, including disadvantaged communities, have become increasingly sophisticated about when and how to engage and influence the decisions of land use planners and regulators. If concerns are not acknowledged and addressed during internal project planning, or the external permit application process, then project opponents will use environmental impact statements (EIS) at a time in the process when they have the most leverage by raising unaddressed concerns, including:

  • Public health
  • Community development/investment
  • Cumulative and/or disproportionate impacts
  • Compliance history (existing facilities)

To the extent the EIS is lacking in the area of concern, or the project becomes caught up in local political discourse, these issues can add to a project’s delay and subsequent costs. For project proponents who are confident that there are no adverse impacts according to current regulatory standards, it might be a good idea to anticipate regulatory trends and build/permit based on a reasonably certain future standard. This extra step might be more expensive today, but for a facility that is expected to operate for many years, it could be the difference between competitive longevity and higher operating costs when regulations change.

So what has been the experience of your enterprise or business with environmental justice? What approaches have you employed to address these community concerns and how have they worked for you?


Deidre Sanders, Ph.D., is the Environmental Justice Program Manager for Pacific Gas and Electric Company in San Francisco where she is responsible for implementing the company’s Environmental Justice Policy, is a resource for company project managers, and engages internal and external stakeholders on environmental justice legislative and regulatory policy concerns.  Her statements here on TriplePundit are her own and may not reflect the views and policies of PG&E Corporation or the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

Image credit: Flickr User Klearchos Kapoutsis

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