A tale of two treatment plants: lessons in community engagement
A standout presentation at the Australian Water Association’s Ozwater’19 conference, which was voted second place for the Best Paper and Presentation Award, focused on the human side of the Queensland water industry.
Members of Logan City Council’s (LCC) community engagement team provided insights into the planning of two regional wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) about eight years apart. The approaches taken to community engagement for these WWTPs were radically different.
In 2010, the council’s main aim was to inform community members about a decision to locate a WWTP on 204 ha of acquired property in Cedar Grove. The first stage of this plant is now under construction.
Fast forward to 2018 and the main objective for the second plant, known as Logan South WWTP B, was to ask the community what issues LCC should consider when searching for a location. The council decided on a site for this plant in April 2019.
LCC Community Engagement Program Leader Tamara Weaver said there has been a big shift in the practice of community engagement since the planning of Cedar Grove WWTP.
“It wasn’t really until 1990, when the International Association of Public Participation was founded, that a coordinated approach to involving community members in government projects and decisions began to emerge,” Weaver said.
“For many local government authorities, a commitment to community engagement was informal until much later. LCC introduced its first Community Engagement Policy and Community Engagement Strategy in 2009.”
For both WWTP projects in Logan, LCC recognised that community engagement was needed to support the planning and development process. However, it saw the role of engagement at different points in the process and for different purposes.
The council’s direction to undertake community engagement for the Cedar Grove WWTP was part of a confidential decision to acquire land for the plant. A preferred site for the WWTP had already been selected on technical grounds via a siting study, although the study did consider some social issues such as odour impacts on existing residents and buffer distances between WWTP structures and residents. The community engagement program was largely information-driven.
For Logan South WWTP B, the engagement program was developed after preliminary planning studies but before any decision was made about a preferred site for the plant. LCC offered community members in the development corridor from Park Ridge to Yarrabilba (about 10,000 households) the chance to provide feedback on what issues it should consider when selecting a site for WWTP B.
“The approach taken for Logan South WWTP B still required LCC to make the difficult decision on where to locate the facility,” Weaver said.
“However, it did give affected community members a voice in the process.”
Weaver said feedback from the community was gathered in a range of ways, including at information events, via phone and email, and through an online ‘Have your Say’ site, which included project information, a survey and an interactive map where visitors could ‘pin’ comments.
“This was quite different to the early engagement activities in Cedar Grove, which were limited to media statements and delivery of letters to a small group of property owners directly surrounding the WWTP site,” Weaver said.
“Both engagement programs resulted in a lot of feedback to Council. Residents’ concerns about the potential impacts of a WWTP in their area on property values and lifestyle were expected, but the processes threw up some unexpected outcomes.”
Both engagement programs attracted negative publicity, misinformation campaigns on social media, community protests and petitions, despite the Cedar Grove WWTP engagement program being information-oriented and the WWTP B program being more consultative.
“We thought residents would applaud LCC for taking a fresh approach to engagement for Logan South WWTP B. However, this wasn’t necessarily the case. We were greeted with some suspicion,” Weaver said.
“I think the lesson here is that it takes time for trust to build between government and community members about information sharing and genuinely using feedback to influence project decisions. For us, we will need to repeat and improve on the process over time.”
Feedback from the initial consultation period for Logan South WWTP directly influenced the site selection process. Common themes raised by community members were used as criteria to rank potential sites, with community criteria weighted at 40%, environment at 30% and cost at 30%. The selected site had the lowest community impact of the 24 sites assessed.
At Cedar Grove, there was a turning point in the engagement process in 2018.
LCC changed its approach, releasing more technical information about the WWTP, answering questions openly, inviting community members on-site to view infrastructure locations and sizes, and establishing a Community Reference Group.
“These actions really improved relationships between Council and the local community,” Weaver said.
“We have had some great outcomes since then. Recently, the Community Reference Group helped finalise a masterplan for the whole Cedar Grove site, which includes a range of community facilities including walking trails, a Landcare nursery and lots of planting of native trees.
“The group has also agreed on a new name for the WWTP site: the Cedar Grove Environmental Centre. I think that says a lot about the changing perceptions of treatment plants, and even more about the benefits of a consultative approach to community engagement.”