Using Dispute Resolution Techniques to Address Environmental Justice Concerns

By — on / News, Reviews of Books

A leak at a petrochemical plant releases a plume of sulfuric acid across 15 square miles, sending 24,000 people to the hospital. A refinery releases more than 100 tons of a toxic substance over four communities for 16 days, causing neurological disorders, skin reactions, and eye problems. A neighborhood built over abandoned crude oil storage pits and exposed to hydrocarbons for 20 years experiences a wave of cancer and lupus cases. A railroad tanker car parked several yards from homes and a community center releases 3,300 gallons of hydrochloric acid into the air, causing the evacuation of 300 people.

For better or worse, these kinds of accidents and discoveries of contamination open a window of opportunity in which environmentally overburdened communities can engage with the industrial facilities in their midst. Advocates of environmental justice are learning how to take advantage of these moments, for they represent clear yet fleeting chances to improve environmental conditions, alter community-corporate relations, and consider more holistically the interests of those who reside in what are typically low-income communities of color.

But do such opportunities actually result in change for the better? Do these crises encourage improvements to plant safety, preparedness, emergency response capabilities, or citizen roles in mitigation, monitoring, and decision making? Traditionally, residents in over-burdened communities have responded to these kinds of crises with litigation, with mixed results.

This report looks at other means of redress: it contains six case studies that point to the growing use of “alternative dispute resolution” approaches within environmental justice communities, and illustrates the varying results achieved through these means. Its goal is to make sense of early efforts by residents to negotiate with the owners and operators of these facilities, to consolidate lessons learned and to present advice regarding community-corporate negotiation for future generations of activists, community-based organizations, regulators, elected officials, and researchers.

The case studies were commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice and prepared by Gregg P. Macey and Lawrence Susskind of the Consensus Building Institute of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Susskind is the director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. Macey was a 2001-2002 Program on Negotiation Graduate Research Fellow.

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