by Jim Bynum
When government agencies want to promote a program that is not good for their constituents such as spreading
pathogen (disease) contaminated sewage sludge and sewage effluent on farmland, food crops, and even
schoolyards as well as lawns, they turn to public relations agencies for guidance and industry organization to carry
out the program. Gatekeepers with little actually knowledge are chosen to spread the message that sounds good.
Science, Truth, Public Health and the Laws don't enter into the equation. In an attempt to fool the public, the names
are changed: 1) sewage sludge became biosolids and a lot of effort was expended getting the name into the
dictionary; and, 2) sewage effluent was changed to reclaimed water. The claim is that these are new, well treated
Today, the gatekeepers tell us we are running out of clean water and must start using reclaimed water to
irrigate our crops, schoolyards and lawns. Never mind the fact that science has proven the treatment
processes don't destroy the disease organisms or remove dangerous chemicals. The gatekeepers tell
us that low levels of indicator coliform in the reclaimed water show there is no danger of actual disease
organisms being in the reclaimed water.
The gatekeepers tell us Coliform testing is used to indicate the presence of fecal matter in drinking water, but they
do not cause disease. Today, we know that all 12 human disease causing bacteria commonly found in the
coliform test .
With all the disease outbreaks (spinach, lettuce, etc.) that have been traced back to the Salinas Valley where
reclaimed water is used for irrigation. We can expect the public relation campaign to promote reclaimed water
to increase dramatically. We will be hearing from more gatekeepers and, as you will see below, we can expect
to see the gatekeepers head to the schools to spread their disinformation.
CDC AS A GATEKEEPER
EPA PUBLIC RELATIONS CAMPAIGN FOR SLUDGE
MARKETING A DIRTY PRODUCT
PUBLIC PERCEPTION ISSUES
PUBLIC PERCEPTION PROBLEMS
Originally published in the May-June 1997 issue of the Keystone Water Quality Manager. A publication of the
Pennsylvania Water Environment Association.
Biosolids 2000 – Pennsylvania Progress and Problems
By William E. Toffey
School Children are the Key. We can look forward to WEF’s water resource curriculum to reach teachers
in our community and introduce biosolids. While we are waiting, wastewater authorities ought to take
the initiative to contact their local coordinators in the Pennsylvania Science Teachers Association to
offer tours and class visits by science classes to local treatment plants and biosolids recycling sites.
Provide Background Information to Local Officials. Local elected officials are the first persons to whom neighbors
turn when they are concerned about reported biosolids projects. We must provide these officials a complete
package of background information, and ideally field experience, with our recycling plans and programs. Few
biosolids proposals which meet public resistance survive in cases where a local official spearheads the opposition.
So, as a minimum, we need to see that local officials acknowledge the reasonableness of the recycling proposals
placed before them. The environmental and fiscal benefits of biosolids recycling can be made all the more
persuasive to local officials if the landowner himself participates in the background briefing.
Originally published in the September-October 1997 issue of the Keystone Water Quality Manager. A publication of
the Pennsylvania Water Environment Association.
Biosolids 2000: Public Acceptance of Biosolids Recycling
By Peter S. Machno, Ph.D. and Jane Forste
Public acceptance of biosolids recycling is a significant issue facing biosolids managers in the 1990s. With the
cessation of ocean disposal in the United States, Australia and the European Community, a major cost-effective
alternative is land application. Land application often involves working in communities other than those where
biosolids originate. Interaction with neighbors requires biosolids managers to adopt new communications skills. In
1990, the Water Environment Federation adopted “biosolids” as the new term to describe treated solids from a
wastewater treatment facility that can be recycled beneficially. Biosolids is a much more accurate term than “sewage
sludge” to describe a product that has been treated, regulated and can be used as a fertilizer. Biosolids managers
and organizations worldwide recognize that public acceptance is essential for any successful biosolids recycling
program. The Biosolids 2000 Program was developed to articulate the goal of making biosolids recycling publicly
acceptable throughout the globe by the year 2000.
Public acceptance is essential to biosolids recycling. As agencies around the world move from ocean disposal and
landfilling of wastewater solids, biosolids recycling through land application becomes more visible to the public. The
public, in turn, wants assurance that biosolids recycling is both good for the environment and safe. Since a
perceived risk is just as real to people as is scientific risk assessment, decision-making is often driven more by
perception than reality. Public acceptance efforts based only on scientific data and information about risk
assessment do not necessarily increase public acceptance of projects. Our challenge is to change public
perceptions over time through credible communications efforts.
With respect to biosolids, more than 20 years of extensive, detailed scientific studies worldwide have clearly
established that treated municipal wastewater solids can be used safely on land in a variety of ways. Quality
standards for safe, beneficial uses are based on conservative risk assessments of the impact of biosolids on the
environment, crops, animals and humans. Why then does a negative perception about the use of this material
persist? Part of the answer lies in a lack of understanding — a common and natural human apprehension. The
average citizen knows little or nothing about wastewater treatment, pretreatment programs that protect the integrity
of this treatment and the composition of the treated solids. All of these issues need to be addressed in an outreach
effort to gain public acceptance.
When developing a dialogue with communities where biosolids will be processed or used, it is important to establish
the link between the commitment to clean water and the need to manage the solids from wastewater treatment. All
wastewater treatment organizations are committed to even greater improvements in water quality, yet can be
burdened with a history of negative perception of the byproduct of these improvements.
The Biosolids 2000 Program, launched in 1995, aims to have biosolids recycling publicly acceptable throughout out
the world by the year 2000. The program is well under way and has been embraced by many organizations and
agencies worldwide. Recycling includes all beneficial uses of biosolids from land application to energy recovery. The
1993 communications plan developed for the Water Environment Federation by the Powell Tate public affairs firm
serves as a road map for the mission of educating the public and gaining acceptance of biosolids. The plan was
developed under a US Environmental Protection Agency grant to WEF to support beneficial use of biosolids.
The plan identifies obstacles to overcome and the opportunities to be maximized in achieving greater public
acceptance. It is based on motivational research and a review of media coverage which included municipal
wastewater agencies and private companies.
WEF Biosolids Communications Plan
Powell Tate, the consultant, provided a strategy for a comprehensive program to achieve public acceptance with
outreach efforts and industry communications. As with such initiatives, it should be viewed as a beginning and a
framework for ongoing activities. Broad public understanding and support will be achieved only with a sustained
effort that is thoughtfully planned and executed.
The communications campaign is designed to enhance public perception and understanding of biosolids recycling in
order to gain broad general acceptance. Improved public perception will provide better support for biosolids
management programs and thereby improve the environment and protect human health. This, in turn, should help
advance the goals of the US Environmental Protection Agency in supporting beneficial use.
The strategy for the communications plan focuses its efforts on “gatekeepers.” Such a campaign identifies key
organizations and individuals for the initial outreach program. This approach makes the best use of limited funds,
educates well-respected individuals and organizations, and provides accurate information to these gatekeepers for
distribution to their constituencies.
The nature of the biosolids product represents a key contributor to public skepticism about its beneficial use.
Therefore, the communications plan includes an approach to be reflected in the messages which de-emphasizes the
product (biosolids) and focuses attention, wherever possible, on the process (recycling).
Materials and spokespersons should reflect a regional orientation to neutralize potential resistance to “importing the
product from the outside.” Spokespersons and materials should reflect local community perspectives so that people
will recognize the value of biosolids recycling and not view it as an imposition by outsiders. Local or state leaders
who provide statements of support are more effective than the same support coming from someone outside the
area. Regional spokespersons and materials are viewed more favorably by elected officials at all levels of
Theme and Audiences
Given the results of the survey and the attitudes revealed, and recognizing that no one theme can communicate
every message about an issue, WEF’s Biosolids Public Acceptance Task Force adopted the following theme:
Beneficial Technology for a Better Environment
The first and essential “audience” is the industry’s water quality professionals. They must understand and accept the
importance of the messages based on this theme. How these messages are communicated to various audiences
was identified as critical to the success of the communications plan.
“Gatekeepers” refers to individuals and organizations whose opinion on an issue is valued by the public because of
their expertise, authority or position. Gatekeepers can be teachers, doctors, community leaders, the media,
scientists and other knowledgeable professionals. Both the public and elected officials defer to their opinions on any
issue, and they serve as sources of information to other gatekeepers (e.g., the media) when they in turn form their
own opinions. Therefore, educating gatekeepers in biosolids recycling is a critical first step in the communications
water quality professionals
public health officials
agricultural groups/farming representatives
Gatekeepers should be approached on all points of the political spectrum to avoid politicizing biosolids issues. The
above audiences were selected for their ability to help address one or more of the potential obstacles identified by
the consultant. For example, public health officials provide credibility to messages concerning health; agricultural
experts can address questions about scientific research; and environmentalists provide support for the
environmental benefits of recycling biosolids.
While elected officials are an important general audience, they are not included as gatekeepers because the
research showed that they lack credibility with the public. They are, however, an important audience, and must be
educated about biosolids recycling.
Spokespersons and Third-Party Allies
Spokespersons differ from third-party allies and industry supporters in that spokespersons are usually directly linked
to, or affiliated with, the industry. Spokespersons usually have or represent a financial stake in the outcome.
Spokespersons should be articulate, telegenic individuals knowledgeable on the issue, experienced and well
respected. Spokespersons can provide media interviews, byline articles, editorial briefings, appearances, panel
discussants and speakers as appropriate at regulatory and legislative hearings. Spokespersons should be trained
specifically in media relations to communicate appropriate messages, handle different types of interviews and make
effective presentations. More than a dozen spokespersons from the various regions of the United States have been
In contrast, third-party allies do not have a proprietary interest in the outcome of an issue but participate because
they perceive their constituencies will be directly affected. As an example, the American Association of Retired
Persons may take a position on a controversial travel issue because its members are frequent travelers. The
organization will work with various partners to ensure that the issue is settled favorably. The third party accepts no
funding for this work, but provides other resources instead. Because third-party allies have no direct financial stake
in the issue, their support adds credibility to the messages. Some potential third-party allies for the biosolids
communication effort include environmental and agricultural organizations.
Third-party allies may serve as spokespeople in a number of ways. They can be quoted in news stories, meet with
regulators and others in support of an issue, write a letter to the editor when requested, participate in a media tour
or undertake educational activities with their members.
In summary, the difference between spokespeople and third-party allies lies in determining where the loyalties lie. A
paid spokesperson’s primary loyalty is to those whose top priority is furthering the issues. A third-party ally is, first
and foremost, loyal to the constituency he or she represents and speaks out on the issue solely because of its
impact on that constituency.
In the research survey, “water quality professionals” were viewed favorably as credible messengers on biosolids.
Therefore, the spokespersons for this public acceptance campaign are presented as water quality professionals.
Regional spokespersons are trained in media and presentation skills and are available to the media in their
respective regions as “water quality professionals” knowledgeable in the field of biosolids recycling. These
individuals can be scheduled for editorial board visits, media interviews, meetings with community leaders and
appearances in public forums in their region. An ongoing outreach campaign to the media using these individuals is
essential to communicate messages to gatekeeper audiences and, through them, the general public.
As a gatekeeper, I'm just protecting you from information that
would cause you to worry or panic. Trust me, I'm an expert.