You know by now that Toronto wastewater treatment plants have bypassed sewage 11 times in the wake of record-setting heavy rains. Combined sewage overflows have sent more sewage directly into the harbour. This has been a bad month in a city with chronic infrastructure and water quality issues.
When the Toronto Harbour turned brown, the City had a perfect opportunity to explain its infrastructure challenges and alert water users about elevated health risks. Instead, an official downplayed the issue and called public reporting “unnecessary”.
For reasons that escape me, the city doesn’t seem to think you have a right to know when sewage flows into the lake where you swim, paddle, and boat. Where you get your drinking water. Where some get their food and others use it to grow theirs. Waterkeeper disagrees.
So what does a polluter or apologist do when they are at odds with public opinion? In the years that I have been practicing environmental law, I’ve watched time and time again as people use the same spin techniques to downplay public concerns. The approach is based on logic tricks dating back to Greek and Roman times. It works more often than I’d like to admit. And it’s happening right now here in Toronto.
That’s why I want to pull back the curtain and show you the 4 spin techniques polluters love, as illustrated by Toronto’s disastrous sewage story.
Technique #1: Deny
Stage one is denial. The public or a community organization points out a problem and defenders explain why it’s not a problem at all. We saw it last week when reports of the brown harbour first started to come in. Many observers dismissed water quality concerns by saying it was just sediment from the Don River.
The denial technique works best when you can make it seem like everyone has an opinion and facts are hard to come by. It puts an unreasonable burden on the public to prove what can be unprovable at the height of a crisis.
Technique #2: Diminish
Stage two is to diminish the problem. You can’t deny its existence anymore, but you can explain why it’s really “not that bad”.
We saw it this week when the director of waste water treatment for the city reportedly said that bypasses are not a serious threat to public health. An expert from the University of Toronto was also quoted as saying that sewage is only dangerous in concentrated form and that the waste that enters the city’s lakes and rivers during a storm would be “extremely diluted” by rainwater.
Once again, diminishing the problem shifts the focus to opinion and argument. In Toronto’s case, it is a waste of time. Water quality standards are well-established in Ontario: E. coli above 100 units/ 100 mL of water raises your risk of infection and pose a threat to aquatic life. Period.
Technique #3: Deflect
When you can’t diminish the problem anymore, your next course of action is deflect. This is an elaborate “Hey! Look over there!” technique. It usually emphasizes how many other bad actors are out there doing the same thing (or worse).
The city can’t point to a larger polluter, since Ashbridges Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant is the largest surface water polluter in Canada.
With that option off the table, it points to a polluter who can’t defend itself: the goose.
Those pesky, food-eating, dropping-leaving, fluff-creating creatures thrive in beach zones. They contribute to beach water quality problems and they often make for an unpleasant beach-going experience. There is enough truth to the story to make it a viable choice.
In the middle of one of the rainiest weeks on record. We’ve had bypasses sending partially-treated sewage into the lake for 30+ combined hours. And the city spent more time talking about goose management than the biggest pollution concern on Lake Ontario.
Technique #4: Applaud
The final technique is applause. This is glorified deflection, essentially shifting the message away from all that is going wrong to celebrate successes.
Hang tight and watch. Something is coming. Watch for the “We’re doing less bad than before” or the “we’ve spent a lot of money” narratives.
Coming from a criminal law background, the “deny-deflect-diminish-applaud” techniques are familiar. They are also risky in a court of law. Criminal trials are held in front of judges who have been trained to spot logic tricks and who often punish those who use them.
In the court of opinion, especially when it comes to environmental concerns, “deny-diminish-deflect-applaud” seems to work all too well. Kudos to the individuals, reporters, and regulators who recognize the spin for what it is.