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October 01, 2003

Companies and Communities: The Collaborative Model

by Sue Briggum

In May 2003, Chemical Waste Management of Indiana, Inc. (CWM), owner of a closed hazardous waste landfill in Fort Wayne, Indiana, conveyed the deed for 200 acres of clean buffer property adjacent to the facility to a community-based alliance for redevelopment. This ceremony ended decades of controversy and litigation over the rights of business and those of a community concerned about environmental harms. The story of the Adams Center landfill site has much to say about environmental justice issues, the building of alliances, and the roles of litigation and communication.

History of the Site

CWM's Adams Center Landfill was one of the early examples of the type of engineered disposal facility the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) mandated in 1980 to safely manage industrial waste byproducts. The Adams Center landfill, surrounded by 700 acres of buffer, was located at the edge of a community with significant economic challenges, including the impact of the closing in the late 1980s of the area's major manufacturing employer. The landfill represented an environmental asset to Indiana and out-of-state business and industry in need of permitted hazardous waste disposal services. It also provided on average thirty-five to fifty jobs to the southeast Fort Wayne community and paid about $500,000 per year host fees to the city.

The Adams Center facility bridged two very different communities: the southeast, predominantly African American section of Fort Wayne and, two miles to the east, the rural, predominantly white community of New Haven, some of whose residents called themselves the "Dumpstoppers." City residents saw the facility as an employer and important source of annual revenues, although a potential health and environmental concern. The Dumpstoppers saw it only as a blight, and they pursued several lawsuits. One, In re Chemical Waste Management of Indiana, Inc., RCRA Appeal Nos. 95-2, 95-3, 1995 RCRA LEXIS 16 (EAB June 29, 1995), established several legal precedents embraced by today's environmental justice advocates:

  • The EPA, as policy, should offer opportunities for public participation beyond mandated limits where a facility may have a disproportionate impact on a minority or low-income community;
  • The RCRA's omnibus authority to protect human health and the environment requires that the EPA impose additional permit conditions if a facility threatens the health or environment of a minority or low-income community; and
  • The EPA has discretion to deny a facility permit if the threat to minority and low-income communities cannot be addressed.

The approach of the grassroots city community was different, emphasizing engagement and dialogue rather than litigation. The community was forcefully represented by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA), which since 1941 has advocated for the social, economic, cultural, and spiritual advancement of Fort Wayne's southeast side. The community had specific questions about facility impacts that were unanswered by regulatory procedures and formal public participation proceedings. As discussion proceeded, Adams Center staff began to understand and respond to their concerns. A working relationship was born.

The Adams Center landfill closed in 1998; the relationship with Fort Wayne endured, however. CWM and the IMA worked together to decide how the parcels of clean buffer owned by the company could be used to enhance the economic base of the community as well as provide needed educational, housing, and recreational services. The emerging plan allows for 145 acres of near property to be turned into a wetlands preserve and ecological buffer with environmental education facilities, recreational facilities, and walking and riding trails.

Other portions of the buffer were transferred to the Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance for potential industrial or commercial development. The final 200 acres were deeded directly to the IMA for community use; projects being discussed include a working horse ranch for at-risk children and potential health, housing, and other services to the community. Howard University's Center for Urban Progress Program and Ball State University will assist with the IMA's final use plan, and revenues from any profit-making ventures on the property will be collected by the IMA to fund further community services.

The land will be developed according to the model for collaboration and community revitalization created by the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice and the federal Interagency Working Group (IWG). The IWG's premise is that development in environmental justice communities must be crafted based on the grassroots vision for the community level and that the government and other stakeholders are partners in supporting that vision. Although Fort Wayne was not a formal IWG demonstration project, IWG and EPA staff provided guidance and direction. Nonprofit organizations like Bethel New Life and the National Association of Neighborhoods shared advice and good practices in collecting and coalescing community views.

CWM Lessons Learned

Litigation: The lesson of Adams Center and many similar controversies is that litigation is an uneven tool for advancing the interests of an environmental justice community. Litigation can clarify legal authority; supplement agency enforcement efforts and stimulate government oversight; and motivate business and industry to come to the table to resolve disputes-but the interests of the community of primary interest must remain paramount.

Equally challenging is the role of litigation in motivating corporate change. Companies do not easily ignore the adverse publicity of a controversial case, particularly when it involves the potent social and political issues of environmental and civil rights. But litigation against one facility has relatively little impact on other companies. The best results in terms of enduring community involvement and tangible contributions to quality of life come from committed company management, not from lawyers.

The Collaborative Model

The collaborative model being developed by the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice and others has enormous potential to motivate positive corporate change. Because the emphasis is on concrete, feasible contributions to community quality of life rather than abstract principles, the goals for each participant are workable. Each business or industry impacting a community is encouraged to go beyond compliance with legal obligations to achieve a larger, community purpose. The collaborative discussion evolves from an appreciation for community experiences and views and an understanding of the constraints under which business and government operate. At Adams Center, the initial discussions about CWM's donation of land brought all members of the community together to think not only of how the fence-line community could be served but also how the adjacent communities could work toward a common goal of financial and environmental improvement in southeast Fort Wayne.

Best Practices

The collaborative model provides a good way of doing business generally. Much of corporate America now recognizes the need to contribute to the community in terms of charitable donations and support for local education and other projects. An environmental justice policy goes further to recognize additional stresses placed on vulnerable communities and seeks ways to alleviate these stresses. Adding expectations of routine community dialogue and response adds hours to the work day for both company employees and community members, and the resulting programs usually demand resources as well. Finding these resources is not just the "right thing to do," however. It is increasingly seen as an essential part of sustainable business.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2003, Vol. 30, No. 4, p.21-22.

Sue Briggum

Sue Briggum is the director of environmental affairs for Waste Management, Inc. She currently serves as co-chair of the National Environmental Policy Commission and the Cumulative Risk Work Group of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee. She is a member of the steering committee of the Business Network for Environmental Justice.