The backlash came fast and furious after grassroots groups released details of uranium contamination in human test subjects from Port Hope, Ontario in November. Private citizens, pundits and government officials condemned their neighbours for voicing concerns about uranium pollution.
Scientists and community organizers were labelled, "small, but loud, self-interest groups" They were accused of using, "terrorist tactics," and being, "willing to do whatever they have to get attention, regardless of the cost to the community." Even the local MP had harsh words, criticizing the groups for bringing, "needless, negative attention" to the town.
In the immediate aftermath of the November press conference, a reported 3,000 residents and Port Hope merchants took to the streets to "save Port Hope." Business owners and government officials dominated newspapers and television news broadcasts.
Whether calculated or merely coincidental, their collective response followed a pattern that Waterkeeper has seen in dozens of communities facing environmental concerns.
First, the individuals and organizations who spoke out are ostracized. They are labeled trouble-makers, do-gooders, or wackos - anything that might separate them from "ordinary folk". This makes it harder for you and me to identify with their message or to share their concern. (See, for example, repetition of marginalizing terms in the Port Hope coverage such as "self-interest", "terrorist", "minority", etc.)
Second, access to a fair forum is limited. The public (regardless of point of view) is offered no independent decision-makers, scientific experts, counsel, testimony under oath, ability to cross-examine other speakers, or opportunity to appeal.
The whole point of a fair forum - be it a panel review environmental assessment, a hearing at the Environmental Review Tribunal, or a traditional court of law - is to get at the truth. To lay all the facts on the table. To test the assertions of every side. To bring a community together.
In a town like Port Hope, where neighbour is pitted against neighbour and the most basic information is not available, a full investigation is the only legitimate option. Every community has a right to know what property is polluted and what the contaminants are. Every community has a right to know what is being done to clean up those contaminated lands. Port Hope is no different.
Check out last week's Living At the Barricades Podcast for an in-depth discussion on this topic, including examples from other communities on Lake Ontario where the "ostracize and contain" pattern can be found.