Canadian Consulting Engineer

People Power

March 1, 2007
By Bronwen Parsons

The room is ready and waiting. A series of panels is set up around the space, each board showing coloured perspectives of what the West Don Lands development will look like if all goes to plan. The go...

The room is ready and waiting. A series of panels is set up around the space, each board showing coloured perspectives of what the West Don Lands development will look like if all goes to plan. The government agency in charge of the Toronto waterfront wants to transform what is now a grimy and deserted industrial flatland into condominiums, parks and roads. But at every step of the way they must consult the citizens and make sure they’re on side.

People begin to drift in, mostly well heeled, intellectual types, though also some students. They’re handed a questionnaire on which to make their comments. Trendy young professionals from the consulting firm in charge of the public relations exercise hover beside the visitors. They’re as nervous as if they were hosting a party in their own homes: “Would you like a coffee?” “Can I explain any of this to you?” One of the first visitors to arrive is a retired chemical engineer who’s found a passion for city planning and activism. He’s been to every meeting: “I won’t see the plans realized in my lifetime,” he says wistfully. After this he’s going to another public meeting up the street at City Hall. He wants to know what ideas the architects have on offer for transforming Nathan Philip Square.

Across Canada the same scene is being repeated with almost every major development. Whether you’re designing a road, a mine, an incinerator, or an entire precinct, if it’s a major project, it will have to go through some kind of environmental review before it can be built. As part of that process, you’ll most likely be required to lay your proposals before the eagle eyes of the public.

The process of gaining the community’s trust and approval could be a long trek over difficult ground. Some controversial projects have taken decades before construction could begin. Those involving First Nations’ land are the most delicate. The Wuskwatim hydroelectric project in Manitoba, for example, went through nine years of negotiations, culminating in a 1,500-page document, before the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation voted 63 per cent in favour of allowing it to proceed. Other controversial projects that recently have been inviting public input include the Bruce A nuclear power plant restart in Kincardine, Ontario, a second Irving Oil Refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, and the Sea-to-Sky highway project in British Columbia.

Corporations and government agencies across Canada are investing huge amounts of time and money in these efforts to woo the public. The B.C. government’s Gateway Project on Vancouver’s south shore, for example, has involved 3,400 people in public consultations.

The consulting engineer’s involvement in the public relations effort will vary. Sometimes they will organize the entire program, including setting up meetings and publishing information such as newsletters. More commonly they play a supportive role for clients who are the project’s proponents. Either way, consulting engineers are often in the hot seat. They have to justify their schemes at public meetings with activists who are at best sceptical, and at worst downright hostile.

For many engineers, the public relations party is a whole new ball game. Engineers are educated to solve practical problems with certainty, to rely on calculations and analysis. They are not trained to be experts in mediating between different opinions from people who don’t have the full picture or access to the “numbers.” Public meetings require dealing with passionate and angry community activists, and having to respond to people — sometimes other engineers — who hold contrary opinions to your own. Nonetheless, consulting engineers are succeeding to manage these unpredictable and sometimes stressful situations so that projects are completed to everyone’s satisfaction.

What are engineers up against?

However well orchestrated the public consultation process is, large engineering projects are likely to come up against stiff opposition. In urban areas, groups of local activists quickly mobilize to block projects. Well funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that operate on a national and even global level may also weigh in if they feel a project threatens the environment.

The NGOs often hire like-minded scientists and experts who will stand up in court to question the technical merits of a proposed development. The environmental review process then becomes a battle zone, with the consulting engineers the foot soldiers. Jean Langlois, national campaign director with the Sierra Club of Canada, one of the largest environmental NGOs, certainly sees it that way: “The environmental assessment process is set up like our judicial system. It’s set up as an adversarial system. And so, the proponent [of the project] brings their witnesses, their scientists, engineers, whomever they have. And other interveners in the assessment bring in their own witnesses.”

When the consulting engineer has been hired to act on behalf of the project’s proponent, the NGOs find it hard to believe that the engineer’s opinion will be impartial and objective. Such overt scepticism makes the engineer’s public relations task even more difficult. Langlois suggests it would be “naive” for an environmental review panel simply to accept without question the view of the engineers engaged by the company promoting the project. “Asking the proponent whether they think it’s a good idea is not an objective way of making those decisions in the public interest,” he says.

At a more grass roots level, Karen Buck of Citizens for a Safe Environment in Toronto is also unwilling to go along with what she hears from engineers proposing new projects. She spearheads a group opposed to incinerators being used to burn sewage or garbage near her Beaches community.

“It seems like engineers, or the engineering community, is very reliant on technology,” she says. “Therefore, [they say] ‘Don’t worry about it; this is the best technology there is and we’ll just put it in.’

“Our concerns seem to be sometimes very different than the concerns of the engineers,” she continues. “What happens is that good information is not presented. It is sort of glossed over. Engineers are talking engineer talk, instead of engineering and health. A community wants to hear what are the impacts to the environment and what are the impacts to the health of the community. An engineer needs to try to make those links.”

What works — listening and respect

Bill Allison, P.Eng. appreciates how important it is to make those links. His firm, Dillon Consulting, designed and managed the removal of a landfill as part of the highly controversial Red Hill Valley highway project in Hamilton, Ontario. The landfill removal shows that even though the public consultation process can be frustrating, consulting engineers can overcome the difficulties, are good at listening to the community and can meet their needs. The excavation of the Red Hill landfill was completed with scarcely a complaint. Indeed, things went so smoothly, the project won an award from the Canadian Public Relations Society in 2005.

The excavation involved trucking out 51,000 cubic metres of waste, including 4,500 cubic metres of PCBs. Local residents were worried about odours, noise and toxins. When the project was given environmental approval, it was on condition that the community receive every consideration. A community liaison committee was set up and it was granted funding to hire its own engineering expert to monitor and check on what was being done. The remedial measures that were provided included washing down the local roads to get rid of any pollutants, and installing a special odour-masking device that was to spray a scent into the air (it was never used).

Allison attended over 50 meetings with the community liaison committee and says he is now on a first names basis with those people. “It was a really good news project,” he says.

Michael Marini, community relations officer for the Red Hill Valley project, has nothing but
praise for Dillon’s approach: “I think they were excellent in the public setting,” he says. “They tried as best they could to make the terms something that people could relate to. They weren’t throwing technical jargon at people and assuming they would understand. They took their time; they were meticulous, they had facts constantly. And they sat through those meetings month after month, listened to the comments and explained the procedures.”

Allison says it’s important to respect the views of the community. “Sometimes the discussions become emotional and it’s hard to deal with that side of things. Regardless of what the technical aspects or the numbers say, people have their own beliefs and you can’t convince them of anything different. You just have to accept that’s the way they feel. That’s their perception, they’re entitled to it, and you respect it.”

Across in British Columbia, CH2M HILL were consulting engineers on a project in which public relations was the most important factor. The people of Erickson did not want any chlorine or treatment chemicals in their drinking water, so CH2M Hill had to work with a group of about 25 community representatives and health officials to find an alternative technical solution. The resulting Arrow Creek Water Treatment plant won a Canadian Consulting Engineering Award last year.

Lawrence Benjamin, P.Eng., the project engineer, found that the community members were well informed: “They were very knowledgeable and they had done a lot of reading,” he says. “Some of the stuff I don’t actually agree with them on, but they had done their research and they were smart and were trying to do what they believed to be correct.”

He believes that listening carefully to the community’s views — and more importantly, being seen to be listening — was the most important factor in achieving a consensus. He recalls being told by the Receiver in charge of the proceedings that the focus group could see that he was really thinking carefully and listening to what they had to say. “You sort of won them over with that,” the Receiver told him.

It looks as though consulting engineers will be doing more listening if they want to get their projects approved. The old days of the powerful City Engineer who had authority to forge ahead based on his own decisions are gone, suggests Benjamin. “These days in the democratic and political process that we have in Canada, there’s a lot more public involvement.” Does it slow things down? “Yes, I would say it does,” agrees Benjamin, “But in the end it makes for a better product because everyone is satisfied.”

Taking a cool approach

One way engineers manage to steer through the potential quagmire of human emotion unleashed by development proposals is by following a scientific and methodical approach.

Daniel Gauthier at GENIVAR in Quebec City is the company’s director of environment and industrial international projects. He has recently been involved in two mining projects in northern Quebec, in Innu and Innuit territory.

He explains that to achieve a consensus with local communities, Genivar follows a set of carefully defined stages and procedures. These include first making contact with local firms and experts, and then twinning those people with experts from a multi-disciplinary team at Genivar. The team might include anthropologists, ethnologists, sociologists and socio-economists. After presenting the proposals to the community — making sure to stress that the plans are not yet set in stone — they set up focus groups with different sections of the community.

“For example,” explains Gauthier, “the sociologist and the anthropologist arrange with the authorities of different villages and hamlets to meet groups of elders and landowners, groups of women, and groups of young adults.” At the meetings, written and visual aids, sometimes even plays and songs, might be used to communicate key concepts.

Part of the big environmental picture

Gauthier at Genivar explains that they treat the questions of how a project will impact the local people as part of its total environmental impacts. “The overall approach consists of developing with our client a strategy to integrate the project in its human, environmental, biological and physical environments — all three,” Gauthier says.

In the worst-case scenarios, hundreds, even thousands, of people might have to relocate from their homes to make way for a project, and they may also risk losing their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. It’s not surprising, then, that when consulting engineers come in on behalf of the mining company or the power company developing such projects, they can find themselves in a delicate situation.

Gauthier says that their ultimate goal is to build consensus between the project’s proponent and the community that is being affected. Without that consensus, a conflict may develop and the project may be jeopardized. Generally, he says, the community will benefit from the project’s economic outfalls. The community has to weigh those benefits against the disruptions that the development will unleash on their society, culture and natural environment.

“When in the view of the stakeholders there is a general consensus on this balance of the impact,” Gauthier says, “then we can consider the project as potentially well integrated in its environment.”


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