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Reports > Lessons Learned Table of Contents > Executive Summary
> Acknowledgements
> Introduction > Methods > Case Studies > Deloro, Ontario
> Giant Mine, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories > Mount Washington Mine, British Columbia
> Lessons Learned from the Canadian and U.S. Research

4.0 Lessons Learned from the Canadian and U.S. Research


The following discussion draws on some of the key lessons learned from the four Canadian case studies, the U.S. EPA’s experiences with community involvement processes, and some selected studies that deal with public participation and contaminated sites.

The general themes and topics discussed below were chosen because they were common to both Canadian and U.S. research. Some examples are provided, and references are made to some of the case studies that include illuminating examples of the points being made.

At the end of the discussion section, all of the lessons learned from the Canadian case studies and the U.S. examples are listed.

To gain full appreciation for the breadth and complexity of issues that need to be considered when establishing community involvement processes, however, readers are encouraged to read the Canadian case studies and the Lessons Learned from the U.S. in their entirety.

The discussion is divided into four sections:

I.  Benefits of Community Involvement;
II. Barriers to Community Involvement;
III. Overcoming Barriers to Community Involvement; and
IV. Lessons Related to Formal Community Involvement      Processes


Our case studies and lessons learned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate that community involvement leads to better decisions when it comes to the remediation of contaminated sites. Community members can provide local knowledge, information, and insight that may be lacking in expert-driven processes. In some cases, community involvement also leads to lower remediation costs.



It cannot be assumed that limited participation in a public process means that the community members are not interested in or concerned about the subject. There are a number of reasons why community members may not participate in a process.

People living near contaminated sites may be hesitant to trust a government that failed to prevent environmental contamination. As a result, lack of community trust in government often becomes a major barrier to participation in a government-led process.

Disillusionment with processes that do not adequately reflect community composition, or that fail to resolve conflicts in a respectable manner, may also diminish participation and prevent community members from becoming involved.

The scope of the process may prevent certain groups within a community from becoming involved. For example, community members who are concerned primarily about health and relocation issues may not want to become involved in a process that is solely focused on determining the best reclamation option. (See Deloro Case Studies)

Furthermore, if there is an indication that input from the community is not going to be meaningful, e.g., decision-makers have already made up their minds, and public participation is mere “window dressing,” community members may choose to expend their energies elsewhere.

Finally, health, social, economic, political, economic, historical, cultural, and other factors may affect the willingness or ability of a community member to participate in a process related to mine site remediation.



There are several key areas that require attention when attempting to overcome barriers to community involvement in a process. These are summarized below.

Building Trust

Although building community trust can be a time-consuming and challenging process – especially if there is a history of conflict or mistrust – it is unlikely that community participation mechanisms will be successful without it. Consensus-based processes, if conducted well, may be able to facilitate the understanding required to generate trust among members of a diverse community or multi-stakeholder group. Trust may also be built when community members see that some of their priorities have been addressed along with government priorities. (See U.S. Lessons, Leadville Superfund example)

Communicating With the Public

Communities are not homogeneous entities. As a result, it is likely that a number of communication tools and strategies will have to be used to disseminate and gather information, and educate community members. Extra effort should be made to ensure that the information is distributed beyond “those most willing to hear it” and that input is received from more community members than “those who are easiest to hear from.”

Some of the information related to the remediation of contaminated sites is extremely technical. Consequently, efforts should be made to convey this information in an easy-to-understand format. Otherwise, large segments of the community will not have the knowledge to understand the issues and will be unable to fully participate in discussions related to remediation. The more technical information, however, should still be made available to those interested in delving into the data.

When information concerning contamination becomes available, it is important to disseminate this information to the community as soon as possible. Careful attention must be paid to communicating this information in a way that does not incite fear in the community.

Building Capacity in the Community

Citizens and communities require resources, knowledge, and skills in order to “level the playing field” and ensure that they can contribute to a process in a meaningful way.

Community members are often distrustful of the scientific studies conducted by government or industry. To increase the credibility of the data, there may be the need to provide the community with the resources to have the studies independently verified.

In many of the case studies examined for this report, a lack of capacity to decipher and utilize technical reports and data was seen as a barrier to meaningful participation in discussions concerning the remediation of contaminated sites. There are community members who have the desire and ability to understand these issues, if the time is taken to help explain the science to them. This can either be done within the community process itself, or by providing resources to community members to hire technical advisors to help them make sense of the information (e.g., in the U.S. citizens have access to EPA funding for technical assistance grants to hire technical advisors. We are not aware of any similarly government-funded technical assistance program in Canada).

By providing mechanisms for increasing the understanding of the technical complexity of contaminated sites and remediation options, community members may gain a greater respect for the challenges faced by regulators and other stakeholders. This, in turn, may create an environment where innovative solutions can be developed to address the multitude of issues existing at these sites.

Sometimes health and social capacity-building efforts may be necessary as a parallel track to the technical and process-oriented capacity building. Wellness centres, literacy programs, programs with youth, health support initiatives, re-training programs, etc., can help to improve the ability of community members to participate fully in decisions that affect them.

Capacity-building efforts that increase community participation in remediation work (e.g., Citizen’s Environmental Sampling Committee in Rocky Flats, CO) can both empower the community members and better enable them to understand the challenges faced in the remediation of contaminated sites. Often, it will lead to increased public confidence in the remediation efforts. (See U.S. Lessons, Rocky Flats example)



For any given community it is likely that certain processes and mechanisms for community involvement will be more successful than others. As mentioned above, there are many barriers to community involvement, and different types of processes may do a better or worse job at overcoming these barriers.

There are a variety of processes and mechanisms available to involve communities in the task of deciding how to remediate a mine site. This report does not attempt to recommend a particular type of community involvement process, as this will vary depending upon the particular community and the purpose of the community involvement. For example, if the purpose is to obtain community input on a particular remediation option, then surveys and public meetings may be the right mechanisms. If, however, community approval of a remediation option is being sought, then a more formalized process involving dialogue, evaluation mechanisms, and a decision-making protocol may be required.

The following discussion will provide some examples of, and lessons learned from, different types of community involvement processes, but the main thrust of the lessons learned will be to elucidate themes that can guide in setting up or improving existing community involvement processes.

Nature of Involvement and Roles of the Participants

Vocal and critical community activists concerned with health and environmental issues related to contaminated sites have demanded more than one-way communication (e.g., sitting and listening to agency officials at large public meetings). Public meetings have been perceived as venues for agencies to present, explain and defend their decisions already made, rather than as opportunities to enter into meaningful dialogue and shared decision-making with the community.

The nature of a community’s involvement in a process should be made explicitly clear to participants up front. This is necessary to reveal differences in expectations of the level of influence that the community members will have on the remediation decisions. If the community role is not defined, community members will have their own expectation of what the process can achieve. And if these expectations fail to be met, there will likely be a serious erosion of community trust in the decision-makers and the process.

Inevitably, there are a number of governmental agencies and levels of government involved in remediation of contaminated sites. Within a process, representatives of the various levels of government have different roles and responsibilities. These may include:

  • providing advice/assistance to the group (e.g., about what to monitor, the extent of clean-up, the methods used for clean-up, etc.);
  • acting as one of the several parties attempting to reach a decision or make recommendations; or
  • retaining the ultimate decision-making authority. As decision-maker, the regulator may be acting as a trustee of public health and environment (i.e., searching for just and equitable solutions), or as the fiduciary agent for society as a whole (i.e., searching for cost-effective solutions).

Often, neither the governments nor the participating public is clear about the role that the various government officials are playing in the process. This may lead to confusion on the part of community members. And, if these roles are not clarified, there may be expectations raised or assumptions made on the part of the community.

This occurred with the Tsolum River Task Force. Some community members may have believed that one of the government agencies represented on the Task force had decision-making authority, or was at least communicating with those who had. But the role of the government agency in this case was in an advisory capacity only. As a result, community members became frustrated when no action was taken. (See Mt. Washington Case Study)



There is general acknowledgement by government and community representatives of the importance of creating community involvement mechanisms that include broad representation and a diversity of views. Special attention must be paid to whether or not the membership of a process adequately represents the views and values of the larger, unorganized, inactive, and non-participating public.

It is not a simple task to ensure that a diversity of views is heard in a decision-making process. As mentioned above, there are many barriers preventing the participation of some community members. For example, there may be a huge time commitment required in voluntary community involvement processes. The barrier of a large time commitment may result in a disproportionate influence of those community members who have the time to devote to the issues.

Efforts must be made to help the community members address these barriers. If it is clear that there are segments of the community not participating in the process, extra effort should be made to reach out to and accommodate those voices that would otherwise go unheard.

Decisions on who participates and how participants are selected can significantly affect both the perception and the reality of the fairness, independence, and representativeness of that process, for example, if the committee was hand-picked by government, and some members were of the opinion that it did not reflect the full composite of the community and concerned citizens. Consequently, there was not enough community buy-in for the process. A new selection process was developed to better reflect the diversity of the community.

When to Engage the Community

The majority of case studies that were examined stressed that early involvement in participatory processes is very important.

Early involvement can help to take citizens out of a reactive position, and may offer them a more meaningful opportunity for engagement in discussions of options, tradeoffs, and consequences.

It is especially important to engage the community members who are most affected by contamination early in the process, so that their priorities can be heard. This also creates the opportunity for the affected community members to better understand the full complexity of the issues that are being addressed in the remediation efforts. That way, if their priorities are not addressed immediately, they may not be so quick to discredit the process.

The Li Tungsten Superfund example illustrates that early and meaningful public involvement can lead to increased trust and cooperation on the part of the community. It also demonstrates that community members can make a significant contribution to remediation decisions. (See U.S. Lessons)


Key Factors Affecting the Success of Community Processes

Regardless of whether the processes are government-driven (e.g., structure and purpose of the group is defined by the government) or group-driven (e.g., where the group decides on a process, goals, membership, and rules of conduct or operation), there are certain process-related factors that may affect the credibility and success of a participatory mechanism. Some of these factors are outlined below.

  • Agency accountability within a public participation process is essential. The credibility of the process may be undermined when agencies do not respond (or fail to respond in a timely manner) to the public’s input, suggestions, or recommendations. (See U.S. Lessons)

    There may be a need to provide training to regulators who are involved in stakeholder and public participation processes. It has been recognized by EPA that Agency staff could greatly benefit from training in both the value and use of these activities, and also in how to conduct themselves in the processes.

  • Consistency in membership is often cited as affecting both the credibility of the process and the ability of process to move forward. A consistent membership may be difficult to achieve as both government employees and community members can suffer from “burn-out.” This may result from a large time commitment to the process; an inability to deal with conflicts that arise; or, in the case of Mt. Washington, frustration when expectations are not met.

    Actions to prevent participant turnover should be implemented. These actions could include: a process for dealing with conflict; financial support for community members’ expenses; babysitting services; technical assistance to community members; paid staff to do the administrative work that volunteers cannot accomplish; and defined end-points for committees.

    Training for government staff (or all participants) on topics such as listening and communication, negotiation, consensus building, and the use and value of community involvement processes may also help to increase a commitment to the process. Also, processes for bringing in new members will help to minimize the time required to “bring them up to speed.”

  • Issues of openness and transparency can significantly influence public trust and willingness to participate in the process. For example, two court cases have created pressure to have a more transparent process for community involvement in decisions made about remediation of Deloro. Conversely, at the Palmerton Superfund site, initial community distrust of the government was overcome by the open sharing of technical data and by transparency in how the risk assessment was conducted. This led to increased public confidence, and public comments also resulted in important corrections to the data. (See Deloro Case Study and U.S. Lessons)
  • A lack of fairness in the process (e.g., unequal time allowed for different viewpoints to be heard) can diminish the credibility of the process.
  • It is important that conflicts are resolved in a timely manner that is both respectful and fair. Our review of both the Canadian and U.S. case studies reveals that effective facilitation of meetings can be critical to working through the conflicts that inevitably arise in multi-stakeholder or community involvement processes.

Last updated: 2003-09-26

© National Orphaned/Abandoned Mines Initiative (NOAMI) 2004