Toxic Lessons on ESG
Sometimes doing the right thing is easy to understand when you see it emerge from a sloppy, stinky and toxic mess in the middle of your home town.
It was 2007, the housing bubble was beginning to burst and I was leading communications on a highly controversial cleanup of a contaminated industrial site. It was a decade before Environmental, Social and Governance goals became a hot topic on Wall Street, but was the catalyst for the start of a trust crisis globally and the reason why Orenda was born.
The Sydney Tar Ponds was easily described as an Environmental nightmare handed down through generations of steelmaking. The site smelled like raw sewage on a hot summer day, it was revolting. Add in PAHs, PCBs, tar-like contaminants and more, and the community had a problem that could not be ignored. For more than 30 years, the site sat as the community battled over what was the right way to handle the mess. There were activists who were pepper-sprayed, hunger strikes, numerous protests and tremendous media scrutiny (including my coverage as an environmental reporter).
Before it got underway, the cleanup proposal underwent a full public environmental review. The independent panel made 55 separate recommendations before regulators gave the green light. Although many recommendations were technical in nature, they also committed the project partners to important Social development goals. One included the first Aboriginal set-aside project in Canada, creating an opportunity for only First Nations-owned companies to bid on a piece of the work. There was also a robust Local Economic Benefits Program that gave extra weight to businesses from the region competing on tenders. And there was a program designed specifically to bring women into non-traditional trades, putting their boots on the ground as they worked alongside tradesmen. (I personally wore pink safety boots).
The Governance was also unique, with both the Government of Canada and the Province of Nova Scotia cost-sharing the project and overseeing the work. Because trust did not exist between the community and governments at the time, the partners created unique oversight tools that ensured the project was as open and transparent as possible. Each step was audited and publicly discussed with members of a Community Liaison Committee, a group that met regularly.
This is where I witnessed some of the most impressive outcomes of integrating all of these social development initiatives into a large and complex engineering project – it was completed on time and on budget. And the legacy of those social development programs still has a positive impact today.
Although ESG is hitting Wall Street now, one of the best examples of the benefits of doing the right thing happened more than 10 years ago in my hometown.
Be respectful of mother earth, be kind to people, and lead with integrity. #ESG