protest bc

Author: Sarah Whitehouse, Thompson Rivers University, Master of Science in Environmental Science
Co-Author: Dr. Lauchland Fraser, Thompson Rivers University, Professor of Natural Resource Sciences

The practice of the land application of biosolids continues to be subject to questions and concerns. Concerns are raised about anything that might be disposed of down the drain that may potentially impact biosolids quality. The concept of “perception is reality” is an ongoing challenge that biosolids managers are faced with overcoming. To address public concerns, there is a need to better understand the public’s perception of biosolids as well as how people would prefer to see biosolids managed.

As of recent, biosolids management is a salient topic within the Southern Interior of BC where an opposition exists amongst a segment of the population regarding the land application of biosolids. Differences exists between public perception of biosolids and the promotion of the safety and sustainability of current waste management practices that convert sewage sludge to biosolids. Through a mail-out survey, the communities of Kamloops, Merritt and Princeton were assessed to gain a better understanding of public perceptions of biosolids risks and factors which influence public attitudes towards biosolids management. 

Kamloops and Merritt were selected for this survey based on the recent salience of the topic of biosolids within the Thompson Nicola Regional District. Community groups originating in the Merritt area had voiced numerous concerns regarding the land application of biosolids in their area; this opposition led to protests and roadblocks, and ultimately a regional moratorium enacted by local First Nations Chiefs. Kamloops, although having experienced some opposition within the community, had experienced relatively few concerns from the broad community at the time of this survey. Alternatively, Princeton had historically been involved in successful land application projects throughout the 1990’s, but have not been otherwise involved in land application projects. 

Two thousand surveys were distributed proportionately between the communities. A total of 423 surveys were returned for an overall response rate of 22%. Individual community response rates for Kamloops and Merritt were 22 and 24 percent respectively; no survey responses were received from Princeton. The lack of survey response from Princeton suggests that this may not be a significant topic within the community. In order to assess community perceptions of biosolids management risks in Kamloops and Merritt, we used the overarching concepts necessary to obtain community support, Trust and Legitimacy, as a framework to understand how to most effectively address the differences between the public perception of biosolids and the promotion of the safety and sustainability of current waste management practices. 

Kamloops and Merritt generally identified differing risk perceptions around the management of biosolids, where Kamloops was found to be more neutral-accepting in their overall perceptions. This is a likely result of Merritt residents’ recent experience with application sites and proximity to biosolids projects, and the associated local media attention. Merritt residents who reported to be more familiar with biosolids and subsequent related issues within their community, demonstrated significantly stronger attitudes opposing land application practices than the reportedly less familiar Kamloops residents. Interestingly, respondents within the Kamloops community who were more familiar with the term biosolids demonstrated significantly stronger attitudes towards support of the value biosolids offers as a fertilizer. 

Based on the current knowledge base, neither community perceived there to be a strong enough body of knowledge on biosolids. Although it was found that Kamloops respondents support the general idea of recycling biosolids, the trust necessary for a biosolids project to receive stable social acceptance was found to be lacking. Further to these findings, Merritt respondents reported that the benefits of biosolids do not outweigh the perceived health and safety risks and that biosolids do not offer value as a fertilizer highlighting lack of overall community acceptance. Additionally, it was found that both communities generally lack trust in government oversight for land application projects to ensure the safety of human health and the environment. 

This research supports the notion that the beyond compliance approach of conducting early engagement to obtain proactive community support may be valuable for any potentially controversial natural resource project, such as with biosolids land application projects. Although expectations of each community will differ, the findings of this survey can be used to assist with designing stakeholder-centric engagement around potentially controversial natural resource projects.

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