Clearing the air: How industry should respond to public concerns

In Prince George, Canfor accepted the challenge to address pollution issues. Other businesses can and should follow suit to deal with social conflicts

David FullerA few years ago, I was involved with a small team of people in my community of Prince George who gathered with the sole goal of improving the air quality. I was spurred on by a letter to the newspaper by a woman unknown to me, Betty Bekkering, complaining about the local air quality. I called Betty and we organized a meeting of like-minded people anxious to address this concern.

This initial meeting marked the beginning of an organization that grew to 1,200 people. It was called People’s Action Committee for Healthy Air (PACHA) and its goal was to work with industry, government and politicians to find a solution to Prince George’s 50-year-old pollution plague.

At first, industry tried to tell us that it wasn’t their problem. Government said the air issues were caused by road dust. Even politicians dismissed us.

But our group persisted with hard work by the likes of Jo Graber, Mary Macdonald and Sergio Patitucci, just to name a few.

Then something changed. Our group started testing the air independently and our suspicions proved true. Most of the pollution in our community was coming from industry, not road dust or fireplaces. Not only that, support for PACHA and clean air was mounting monthly, with coverage by local media.

We approached many industries in Prince George but our focus was the pulp mills. For decades, the mills had been providing good-paying jobs in the area and politicians had been reluctant to speak out against their pollution. In our opinion, government agencies had been handcuffed in their ability to require upgrades that would make a difference. However, with the growing support of PACHA and media coverage, things were changing and the mills owned by Canfor started listening.

It took some convincing but Canfor got it right. Our meetings with the company were always polite and often led by Martin Pudlas, the operations manager at the mills. At first, they tried to sway us to their way of thinking but as our independent research and evidence grew, and our pressure mounted, Canfor got on board.

Canfor started looking for ways to reduce emissions and odour. After a fire at one of their mills, Canfor upgraded systems substantially to improve the community air quality. When government funds became available for environmental improvements, they tied changes to air quality. When Canfor put their earnings back into operations, they included mill improvements that reduced emissions.

Canfor took their challenges and commitment seriously in the years that followed.

Today, after years of hard work by industry, government and politicians, the air in Prince George has improved with a reduction in odour by 60 per cent and particulate by more than 40 per cent. Canfor benefited because the upgrades effected their bottom line in a positive manner and their shareholders were happy.

Yes, there are days when it still smells. Yes, industry and Canfor probably could do more.

But what did Canfor do that every business should consider?

  • It engaged with disenchanted stakeholders in a positive manner. When faced with confrontational opponents, businesses and owners often become combative and quarrelsome. Canfor didn’t.
  • It admitted its weaknesses. At first, executives told us the age-old story that the pollution was caused by someone else. However, as our pressure grew, they had frank conversations with us about the issues and the challenges they faced. This changed the dynamics in a positive manner. So often as business owners we want to protect our image and remain in control, so we do everything we can to portray a strong image. This doesn’t allow us to consider other options that might be outside the corporate mindset.
  • It creatively found solutions to complex problems. Because they were open to doing what was right while protecting their investors’ money, Canfor’s executive team was able to be creative to achieve their goals. They also used the community pressure to partner with government, which allowed them to use resources to realize potential health improvements in the community.

When communities, government and industry work together in an atmosphere that allows for dialogue – as well as healthy conflict and exchange of ideas – results can be beneficial to all parties.

If there were more win-win solutions presented in environmental and social situations where business is involved, concerns could be more rapidly resolved.

Let’s make it a habit to think outside the box to encourage companies to engage their disenchanted stakeholders and get positive results to complex problems.

Troy Media columnist David Fuller, MBA, is a certified professional business coach and author who helps business leaders ensure that their companies are successful. David is author of the book Profit Yourself Healthy.


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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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