The Case for Environmental Mediation

Mediation, a method of conflict resolution that is an alternative to the legal system, would help us take care of the planet without compromising progress.

| July/August 1983

It's pretty obvious to anyone who watches television or reads newspapers that we live in a quarrelsome society, a culture that seems intent upon adding an eleventh commandment, "Thou shalt sue thy neighbor, whenever possible," to its liturgy. Still, in many instances, particularly when environmental issues are contested, there simply haven't been any alternatives to the use of the court system. Unfortunately, asking judges to settle environmental conflicts all too often seems to lead to crowded court calendars, pyramiding attorney fees, and results that fail to resolve—or even address—the real problems involved.  

In recent years, however, mediation—which has long been accepted as a means of resolving labor/management disputes—has begun to be used in environmental confrontations, and has shown some promising results. As you likely know, the settlement technique involves allowing a neutral third party to meet with the opposing sides, separately and jointly, in order to help each to understand the other's objectives, to point out areas of agreement, and to encourage the opponents to resolve their differences by means of compromise and negotiation. 

Environmental Mediation

One of the most dramatic demonstrations of the potential of environmental mediation took place in December of 1980, when representatives of three private utilities, several public agencies, and two environmental groups were able to settle their long-lasting dispute over the use of New York's Hudson River for power production. At the heart of the controversy was the Consolidated Edison Company of New York's plan to construct an immense hydroelectric plant on Storm King Mountain, in the Hudson highlands. 

This particular case could serve as a textbook example of the limitations and frustrations that can result from seeking a court remedy. Consolidated Edison had been attempting to license the plant since 1962, with constant opposition from activist groups who objected first on aesthetic grounds (the proposed plant would mar the area's scenic beauty), and later because of concern that the installation might harm aquatic life, pollute the adjacent water table, and perhaps even trigger earthquakes! 

Over the years, the citizens against the plant waged a broad legal attack. In the course of the struggle, judges and other officials were called upon to rule on a continuing series of questions, such as whether or not the review and licensing agencies had followed the law, examined the available evidence, and built up adequate information to support their decisions favoring construction of the plant. These proceedings resulted in a total of some $6 million in legal fees, yet never yielded a final decision as to whether or not the generating facility should be built! 

The frustration and apparent futility of the nearly 20-year-old struggle finally encouraged both sides to try—in 1979—to negotiate a settlement. The mediator chosen was Russell Train, president of the World Wildlife Fund. Train spent approximately a year and a half meeting with the opposing parties, in full session and in small committees, and was finally able to hammer out an agreement. 

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