Planning New Construction or Facility Modification? Reducing the Risk of Community Opposition

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Community opposition to new industrial construction can result from a wide range of concerns related to property values, health concerns, and quality of life issues. Some of the most frequent objections are the potential for adverse noise and air quality impacts on the surrounding area as well as the potential for chemical leaks, fires, and explosions. The performance of an Environmental Scoping and Environmental Impact Assessment, as required by regulators for new construction, includes evaluations that can be used to communicate with and allay concerns among potential neighbors. Computer modelling of the predicted impacts is particularly useful to prepare a scientifically robust yet economically feasible analysis of potential impacts.

Setting the Stage for Success

While there are certainly many factors to consider with respect to new industrial construction, related to market factors, construction costs, and available labour, for example, one important process is the consideration of expected impacts on the neighborhood and the effective management and communication of same. The following recommended process can cost a little time and expense on the front end but be well worth the effort.

Engage an environmental consultant early as part of site selection and preliminary design team. Although often brought in to address regulatory concerns, engaging an environmental consulting partner can also be useful to address and avoid many potential areas of community concern from the beginning. It is critical to select a partner that is experienced in the science of impact assessment as well as the art of community relations. Don't assume a consultant has expertise in both; ask for proof.

2. Address site selection strategically. The type of intended operation will dictate many of the variables related to site selection, e.g., type and quantity of land needed, access to power, zoning and neighborhood amenities, potential environmental/community impacts, geological factors, available infrastructure, emergency services, and more. A new data centre, for instance, will be heavily dependent on power access and could generate concerns regarding noise, air quality, and visual impacts on the surrounding community which should be addressed as part of preliminary design, in order to "design out" potential concerns when possible.

3. Conduct preliminary modeling to anticipate impacts. By performing computer modeling that incorporates anticipated operational factors (hours of operation, size of facility/units) with local conditions (prevailing meteorological conditions, terrain features, nearby structures), the team can predict expected impacts and adjust accordingly. Alternative facility layouts, control technologies, stack heights, and even location can thereby be considered to reduce potential impacts in the planning stages before potentially affected neighbors have a chance to become alarmed and resistant.

4. Engage proactively with potential neighbors. Once preliminary analyses have been completed and potential negative impacts minimized to the degree possible, the time is right for proactive and carefully planned engagement with the community. Meetings, mailers, newspaper articles, and social media can all play a part in notifying the community regarding construction plans, informing them about potential impacts including the positives regarding jobs created, for instance, communicating clearly and honestly on the risks, and engaging with them as true partners on the project.

Project Snapshot: Risk of Potential Explosion Averted Through Preliminary Analysis

Consider this example of the recommended process in practice. A chemical storage and processing facility located in an industrial estate needed to store a flammable solvent on site in significant volume. Initially, the plant manager planned to use storage units that were conveniently located for storing the material. Because this activity required a planning change of use, the operator authorized a modelling analysis to determine the potential impact on neighboring units. Using specialized fire and explosion modelling software, the project team determined that the impact of an explosion at the intended location could lead to fatalities at a neighboring office building. As a result, an alternative site was selected, the modeling of which indicated negligible risk. Hence, the operator was able to inform the stakeholders regarding its plans, demonstrate the negligible risk with the modeling results, and move forward as planned.

Alternatively, in several well-known cases, industrial companies have attempted to initiate construction without the recommended analysis and community involvement. Skipping these important steps can create alarm within the community and the perception that the company cannot be trusted. Even when the true potential impacts are minimal, this loss of trust early in the process can lead to community resistance that can become nearly insurmountable.

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