Beyond Siting: Implementing Voluntary Hazardous Waste Siting Agreements in Canada

Article excerpt

Among those concerned with Canadian and American environmental policies, "more democracy" has become a rallying cry. Many analyses of environmental programs and institutions have attributed policy failures to inadequate public engagement and involvement. Following such assessment, recommendations for policy reform frequently have embraced extended provisions for public participation and expanded use of such tools as initiative, plebiscite, policy dialogue, and referendum.

Such analysis has been particularly evident in the area of siting waste management facilities. During the 1970s and 1980s, traditional strategies for imposing such facilities through the so-called Decide-Announce-Defend approach failed repeatedly in Canada and the United States. Responding to this, an extensive and diverse set of analysts converged around the idea of pursuing siting only among "volunteer" communities. Under this method, siting would only be considered after communities have had extensive opportunity to study and deliberate over the possibility of accepting a facility. In 1990, the National Workshop on Facility Siting examined American and Canadian experience and developed a "Facility Siting Credo" that emphasized openness and voluntarism in future siting efforts (Kunreuther 1996). In 1993, a multidisciplinary gathering of siting experts meeting at the University of British Columbia considered North American, German, and Japanese experience and reached strikingly similar conclusions (Munton 1 996). More generally, the themes of expanded democracy and voluntarism have been strongly endorsed in much of the literature on facility siting that has emerged in the last halfdecade (Rabe 1994; Munton 1996; Gerrard 1994; Williams and Matheny 1995; Huitema 1998).

More than conceptually appealing, the voluntary approach to siting has also achieved some significant successes. Two major Canadian hazardous-waste-facility-siting agreements of the past decade have involved strong community support in the provinces of Alberta and Manitoba (Rabe 1994; Castle and Munton 1996). These cases offered textbook examples of the possibilities for voluntarism. In both instances, a history of not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) conflict over siting was supplanted with an extended, provincewide process of public deliberation. Volunteer communities emerged in both provinces and local voters overwhelmingly endorsed the idea of hosting a comprehensive waste management facility through ballot propositions with high voter turnout. Subsequently, other Canadian jurisdictions have had some success with this approach, even in the highly contentious area of low-level radioactive waste facility siting (Gunderson 1997). These experiences have contributed to a significant shift in Canadian policy toward man aging high-level radioactive waste, moving toward a more open, deliberative process than earlier plans that followed a more traditional, top-down approach (Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency 1998; Rabe forthcoming).

Opening the doors of a new waste treatment and disposal facility with a resounding expression of local support does not, however, constitute the political or technical end of waste management issues for a province or state. Indeed, much of the siting literature says very little about facility operation or the implementation of waste management programs. Do voluntary siting agreements result in long-term cooperation between facility managers and host communities? Can the same mechanisms designed to foster public understanding and trust at the siting proposal stage also be employed through years or decades of waste treatment and disposal? Can comprehensive waste management facilities remain financially viable in nations with constantly changing regulations, tremendous variation in policy across subnational boundaries, and the tempting option of exporting waste to the jurisdiction with the lowest regulatory standards--and costs--at a given moment? …