Enforcement and Assistance in New England
Alternative Dispute Resolution
Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is a general term encompassing various techniques for resolving conflict outside of court using a neutral third party. Of the different approaches available (such as arbitration, facilitation, and convening), EPA New England relies primarily on mediation. In this process, a neutral mediator with no decision-making authority assists parties in reaching a mutually acceptable solution. We think mediation is one of the most promising dispute resolution tools because it promotes innovative solutions, cooperation among the parties, and responsibility for the result by all parties. Put another way, it is a positive model for environmental problem-solving that can have long-lasting effects.
We recently had occasion to test these long-lasting effects at the Pine Street Barge Canal Superfund Site in Burlington, Vermont. The Pine Street ADR story begins in 1993 when, upon issuance of its proposed cleanup plan for the site, we were barraged with criticism from all sides--citizens, environmental groups, and local business--challenging, among other things, the Agency’s integrity and competence. Later that same year, we helped to establish a public, mediated-process in an attempt to arrive at a consensus-based remedy with representatives of the full range of interested parties. It was one of our earliest and boldest forays into the use of alternative dispute resolution to address a community relations crisis that was paralyzing the progress of a cleanup. Over the next several years, we transformed our relationship with a hostile, distrusting group of stakeholders into a constructive collaboration, resulting in a revised remedy and certain collateral agreements to achieve environmental benefits beyond the scope of federal law.
One component of the Pine Street remedy was the placement of a subaqueous cap over certain contaminated sediments to prevent coal tar releases. This past year, during routine monitoring, the Region and the companies performing the cleanup determined that there had been releases of coal tar from a portion of the subaqueous cap. In July of 2006, as part of the standard five-year review to determine whether a remedy with waste left in place is still protective, we convened a meeting of former Coordinating Council representatives. Recalling earlier reactions to the Agency's thinking about the site, members of the case team were unsure how the community would react upon learning that the remedy was not performing as intended. A decade after the mediation had concluded, despite the new faces on the case team, the various interested sectors remembered the humility and integrity with which the Region had involved the community in its selection of the remedy. They also remembered the professional competence displayed by EPA staff during that process. Rather than being met with another torrent of criticism and mistrust, the case team received an overwhelming vote of confidence in EPA’s ability to take appropriate action. The representative of a local environmental group, once one of the Agency’s toughest critics, commented on the "culture of responsiveness" that now characterized EPA’s relationship to the community.