Using Dispute Resolution Techniques to Address Environmental Justice Concerns: Case Studies

Gregg P. Macey
Friday, August 1, 2003

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. The crises offer rare glimpses into the routines and standard operating procedures that allow facilities to function in close proximity to residential neighborhoods, conform to permit and other regulatory requirements, promote a perception that the risks they present are within acceptable limits, and avoid state- or citizen- sponsored threats to the legitimacy of their operations. 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 overburdened 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. Our 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.

Case Studies:

  1. Vulcan Materials Mediation (Swansea and Elyria, Co)
  2. Conoco Mediation (Swansea and Elyria, Co)
  3. Chevron Mass Tort Settlement with Special Master (Kennedy Heights, TX) 
  4. Rhone-Poulenc Community Audit Negotiation (Manchester, TX) 
  5. Chevron Memorandum of Understanding (Richmond, CA) 
  6. Unocal Good-Neighbor Agreement (Crockett and Rodeo, CA)  

Read the complete "Using Dispute Resolution Techniques to Address Environmental Justice Concerns: Case Studies" in the attached PDF.