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Mediating environmental disputes: a mix of successes and failures

America's attempts to grapple with its environmental problems are much like the proverbial iceberg. What's in the news - the impassioned rhetoric and political contention taking place in the nation's capital and in the courts - is only its tip.

Outside the media limelight, primarily at the state and local levels, an entirely different type of environmental problem-solving is being developed, slowly and cautiously. In a wide variety of forums, moderate leaders in industry and environmental groups have been exploring various nonadversarial approaches to resolving their differences, with some remarkable successes as well as some disappointing failures.

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A recent book, ''Settling Things,'' published jointly by the Conservation Foundation and Ford Foundation, illustrates both the progress and pitfalls of one of the most promising of these alternative approaches, environmental mediation.

In this volume, author and journalist Allan R. Talbot addresses the progress that has been made in adapting this labor-relations technique to environmental problems. He does this by describing six specific cases:

* The 1980 settlement of the 17-year controversy over management of the Hudson River.

* A 1976 agreement on a hotly contested Interstate highway plan in Seattle, Wash.

* Resolution of a 1978 controversy between a small company and a city in Maine over a proposed hydroelectric system.

* A partially successful attempt to resolve a conflict between a Pacific Northwest Indian tribe and a county park board over use of a small island.

* A still unresolved dispute between two Wisconsin townships over the location of a sanitary landfill.

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* Settlement of a divisive controversy over the location of a new ferry terminal in a small city on Puget Sound.

These cases range from the gigantic (the Hudson River conflict dragged on in the courts for 17 years and legal fees topped $6 million before it was successfully mediated) to the strictly local. In several, the use of specially skilled and neutral third-party negotiators was an unqualified success. In other instances, the agreements later broke down and have yet to be implemented.

The description of the cases themselves illustrates the people-centered process involved, and Mr. Talbot's observations help put the potential value of environmental mediation in a broader prospective. Mediation may be applicable in about 10 percent of environmental disputes: situations where there is a limited cast of characters with an incentive to bargain, he says.

Thus, the technique will not work in controversies like that regarding nuclear power where a specific case is part of a larger, and inflexible, ideological agenda, he concludes. Nor does it seem to work in cases where the cast of characters is too large.

In the last few years, a number of individuals and groups have emerged as skilled environmental mediators. But the future of this still-experimental effort remains a question mark. Although mediation is usually much less costly than prolonged legal action, so far financial support for these efforts has been largely on a case-by-case basis, much of it coming from private foundations.

Generally, mediators reject the idea of charging a fee for their services, because in most cases the financial resources of the parties to a dispute vary widely. If mediators get more money from one faction than another, their position of neutrality is jeopardized.

''Government funding at the state or federal level seems to me to be the most practical, long-range answer. Not only does mediation serve the public interest in resolving disputes, it clearly offers major benefits to government agencies, '' Talbot concludes.

With a number of successes under its belt, environmental mediation has been drawing increasing interest from government officials, corporate executives, and environmental leaders. Whether this interest eventually translates into a permanent place in the American institutional landscape remains to be seen.

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