Companies are starting to learn that we are no longer running a marathon when it comes to seeking public approval or air pollution permits, pipelines, deep injection wells or even land fills. The corporate life cycle in seeking public approvals for environmental permits may seem like a marathon, given how long it can take, but once the plan gets into the pipeline of community chatter, it becomes  a sprint to put out fires, counter misinformation with facts and otherwise maintain any support for a specific project or proposal.

As a result, well before a company files for permits, approvals or even before plans are submitted to the city council or otherwise become a matter of public record, a company should be pro-active and never ignore or dismiss the community in which they want to do business in. This includes engaging local lawmakers, business leaders and trusted community leaders while developing relationships with a key reporter to share your side of the story and details of the project. 

If a business comes into a community ill-prepared to deal with an organized group opposed to their project or application, they will loose big, even if every code and regulation has been met.

Recently (and in the midst of the Flint water crises gaining national attention), Marathon sought additional permits to emit more pollutants into the air, at a level that was okay by regulatory standards, but not okay by community standards. Even Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan opposed the application, saying "You cannot raise the pollutant levels on a poor area and the most polluted to benefit everybody else. I believe that's a civil rights violation," he told a group at a community meeting.  

Marathon Petroleum wants to expand its Detroit footprint. To do so the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has to approve the company's revised air pollution permits. 

Just a few blocks down the road, Wolverine is seeking approval to store coke breeze, a coal-based by-product along the shores of the Detroit River -- Something the Mayor of Detroit and just about every member of the Detroit City Council has already spoken out against.

What both of these companies did not take into account is the history Southwest Detroiters have in regards to large corporations selecting their neighborhood for their facilities despite being zoned for them.  This community is also organized, their voices are loud and despite the law or regulations supporting corporate interests, their demands are reasonable.

What Marathon and Wolverine (and others before them, some who I have represented) did not account for was: 

  • Timing - The community already does not trust government or corporate interests, the issues in Flint only reinforce the lack of trust with the DEQ. Perhaps now is not the best time to raise this issue and the company should've re-evaluated its plans in the region.  In fact, they did, but only after the threat of litigation and political backlash did Marathon agree to lower emissions and more expensive equipment to ensure cleaner emissions. 
  • Get the pulse of the community - While the companies may come into a community thinking they know what they want, they must gain a pulse of the community and take their concerns under consideration in their overall plans, despite what the law says. They don't have to listen to everyone of them but the need to listen and be willing to work with the community in a meaningful way. 
  • Engage stakeholders - At the same time, the company must engage the stakeholders. Address everyone of their concerns, understand their position and find ways to address them - At least make an effort. 

In today's economic and political climate, companies need to work hard to gain or build trust, especially if it is a company that impacts the environment. While companies do have politically outspoken CEOs or active corporate social responsibility programs, this Earth Day (APR 22) they need to find ways to meaningfully engage the community around them.  

This includes understanding the personalities and politics of the issues, familiarizing oneself with the influential community groups, knowing the political leaders in the community and finding ways to build trust and valued relationships to show that your company wants to make a meaningful impact in their community and that you are willing to work with them, no matter what their concerns are. By doing so, you can advance your agenda while respecting local concerns and end up with mutual gains.