Environmental Cleanup Can Be Good Public Relations

Written by Stephen Henshaw, P.G., President and CEO, EnviroForensics
As seen in the September 2010 issue of Cleaner & Launderer

You’ve found solvent contamination at your facility and its impacted groundwater or an adjacent property.   You are probably thinking, not only is it costly to address the contamination, but it could also ruin my good business reputation.  Have you ever thought that cleaning up environmental contamination could be good public relations?  It can, it’s a matter of selling the right message to your audience.

Clearly, one has to be careful in how you are addressing your contamination issue.  Most people’s biggest concern is that their neighbor’s property will have contamination on it or that vapor intrusion is going into their neighbor’s home or business and that the neighbors will sue them.  While that may be a possibility, I’ve been conducting environmental investigations for a long time (ok almost 30 years, I’m old) and I rarely ever see that as an issue.  When it is an issue it’s almost always happens in reverse.  A lawsuit is filed by a party or group of people against all of the parties that owned the property or business where contamination is allegedly emanating from.  It is rarely that a drycleaner conducts a cleanup and they are now being sued.  While PERC dry cleaning solvent is considered a known carcinogen, it is generally very difficult to attribute a person’s adverse health condition to PERC exposure.  That is to say that if someone that has cancer was exposed to PERC, they have likely been exposed to other chemicals that are also carcinogenic, making the direct link between the alleged PERC exposure and the health effect more difficult to legally prove. 

I should also point out that of the hundreds of environmental investigations that I’ve been involved with, only a handful of sites receive significant public attention.  Most people, unlike drycleaners, just don’t deal with environmental contamination as part of their daily life.  For example, most people don’t think that their neighborhood gas station is involved with an environmental cleanup, but almost every gas stations has been or is being cleaned up for a carcinogenic chemical in gas called benzene. So, if nobody asks any questions about the investigation, you don’t have to volunteer any answers, but you should be prepared.

If you find yourself needing to respond to questions you need a positive message and you need to bring your employees on board with that message.  The first step is acknowledging that past drycleaning practices were different than they are today.  While it’s true that in the old days most people didn’t even think PERC was harmful to people or the environment and spent filters may have been placed in trash bins or spills may have been washed into the sewer or storm drain, that message by itself doesn’t resonate with an audience or give them a warm feeling about you.  An alternative message would be, “In the past, PERC was not considered harmful and older machines weren’t really designed to be as protective of the environment as they are today.”  Go one to tell them that a small amount of PERC was found in the soil (and groundwater if you know that to be true) and that you are working with the regulatory agency to make sure there are no impacts to people or the environment.  If you know you are going to conduct remediation, state that you are working with the regulatory agency to restore the soil and/or groundwater to levels protective of people and the environment.  You may want enroll the assistance of your regulatory agency project manager.  Most regulatory agency staff understand the hardships that small business owners face when dealing with environmental investigations and will gladly work with you to present complicated technical issues in a down to earth and unthreatening manner.     

In some states a Fact Sheet may be required to be sent to all residences living within a given area of your property.  It is best if you can be involved with the language of the Fact Sheet.  The Fact Sheet should have the following information: 1) a discussion about the contamination and what is known; 2) a description of planned work and technical reports; 3) contact information for you, your consultant and the regulatory agency representative; 4) where reports can be found about the site and 5) a location map identifying the site and the surrounding neighborhood.    If possible, the fact sheet should be published by the agency or put on the agency’s letterhead.  Your employees should also be briefed and told to direct any questions to you.  It would be a good idea to have copies of the fact sheet at your place of business in case your costumers are curious.  As your investigation progresses, the fact sheet should be updated and the fact sheets should highlight the progress made to solve the problem and future work schedule for cleanup of the contamination.  

If you want to make a really big splash you could even invite the media to cover the story.  We have as a client a very high profile and successful drycleaner who invited the newspaper to cover the environmental remediation of his property.  A journalist showed up with a photographer and wrote about the progress that was being made at cleaning up the contamination and what a great thing it was to be able to restore the environment.  The article came out in the Sunday paper as a lead story for one of the sections (you can see this article on our website at www.enviroforensics.com).  To my knowledge this drycleaner hasn’t lost any business because of the contamination, has no threats of lawsuits, and sleeps really well at night.