Please! Choose My Backyard!

AT first glance, you may not think of a single reason why you'd want a solid- or hazardous-waste facility in your community. ``Not in my backyard'' is the phrase that comes to mind when residents contemplate the desirability of locating landfills, incinerators, and other noxious facilities in their neighborhoods. This attitude has become a problem in the United States, where not a single major new hazardous-waste disposal facility has been sited since 1980. Besides the safety risks, there are few tangible benefits that the public associates with having a waste repository nearby. Few jobs are created, as would be the case if an industrial park were constructed; and residents don't see the projected tax revenues from the facility as helping them personally. More to the point, the public tends to fear that if their community were selected to house a waste facility, they would be assuming a burden with consequences out of their control.

But there are ways to make communities accept, if not vie for the chance to host a waste facility. First, they must feel the project is safe, and that they have some control over its operation. And second, they must be offered benefits along with the facility that, on the whole, make the community a better place to live.

Of primary importance is establishing trust between the residents and the parties responsible for running and maintaining the facility. A recent telephone survey of Nevada residents showed that one of their main reservations in having a radioactive-waste repository in their state is a lack of trust in the government agencies that would manage the facility. They perceived a high risk to themselves and future generations.

On the other hand, Wes-Con Inc. was able to convert two abandoned Titan missile silos into small waste-disposal facilities in Idaho because the state was given the power to shut down the operation if the risks proved too high. The developer also sweetened the proposal by offering free disposal services, extra fire protection, and support for the local 4-H Club.

More and more developers are recognizing the need to involve the public at an early stage in the siting process, to listen to their concerns, and to assure them that the facility is not a risky venture. Of primary concern to residents is their property values. Champion International Corporation recently established a program to protect resale values of homes within two miles of an industrial landfill it is siting. The company offered to reimburse homeowners for any discrepancy in home value between the time the landfill was announced and the time they sell their homes.

But the key to facilitating the siting process is to make it a voluntary option, allowing the community to withdraw at any time. Compensation offered by the developer is then viewed as a reward for accepting the facility rather than a bribe for assuming an additional risk.

With this view, there is no reason why communities would not want to vie for the opportunity to have an incinerator or landfill placed in their neighborhood.

On alternative might be to have each town volunteering to be a host site submit a bid on how much compensation it would require from the developer. The compensation could fund better facilities, thus reducing the residents' health risks. It could also be used to improve public parks, education, community services, or to provide property-tax reductions to residents. The community placing the lowest bid would be selected as the site.

Some people object to a competitive bidding process because they believe poor communities would be the lowest bidders and would therefore be selected as sites. A fairer procedure, then, might be to hold a lottery with the winning community receiving a fixed amount, say $1 million, for its own use. This sum would be an amount that all communities agreed to accept if their name is drawn. After the winning community is picked, all candidates (including the winner) could specify an amount below $1 million if it wanted to host the facility. In this case, it would be unfair not to let poorer communities enter the bidding.

This process might entice communities to volunteer for sites because they have focused on potential benefits rather than focusing just on the costs. The need for new facilities to reduce future environmental risks requires new approaches to break the current logjam. Industrial firms need incinerators to phase out landfills, and the nation must decide how to dispose of its high level radioactive waste.

By stressing safety first and benefits next, perhaps we can create an atmosphere in which the community that didn't bid low enough to host a facility feels that it has lost out.

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