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Clean Water: What's It Worth

A hunger strike, a lawsuit, a nudge from the governor – even sitting down with the opposition – the things people will do for clean water!
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It's an old and sorry story. A corporation comes into a community, fouls the air and water with chemicals that residents suspect may be carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, or poisons, and then pulls out, leaving behind a depleted economy and environment. Or – a variation on the theme – the company sticks around, and local interests compromise their concerns over environmental hazards to protect jobs.

What options are available to communities? One option is to raise holy grassroots hell. Another is to work the legal and regulatory systems for all they're worth. There's an emerging, less conventional strategy as well: sit down and work out a solution that's satisfactory to all. Call it citizen diplomacy. Or rather, all-parties diplomacy, for the corporation has to be ready to come to the table, too.

The sagas of shrimp fisher Diane Wilson, Houston-based lawyer Jim Blackburn, and the Taiwan-headquartered chemical company Formosa Plastics provide a dramatic story of how a problem corporation can become a corporate good citizen. It's a story that can be told from many angles – as a tale of personal heroism (Diane Wilson literally put her life on the line), as an activists' how-to (Wilson and Blackburn pincered Formosa brilliantly), or as a business story about a compelling corporate transformation (Formosa's proactive environmental and sustainability policies, once virtually nonexistent, are now at the forefront of the chemical industry.)

The story begins about a decade ago, when Formosa Plastics proposed a $1.2 billion expansion of its facility in the impoverished coastal community of Point Comfort, Texas. The company wanted to vertically integrate the production of chlorine, ethylene, and ethylene dichloride, all feedstocks in the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride. These chemicals were troublesome in their own right – some were suspected carcinogens, and some have since emerged as possible endocrine disrupters. But these were not the only problems: metals and salt were also being discharged into the nearby Lavaca Bay.


Protecting the Bay

“I couldn't bear what they were doing,” says Diane Wilson, whose family had been fishing the bay for four generations. “I was watching them systematically kill the bay.”

Wilson, the shrimp fisher, joined forces with attorney Blackburn, and together they launched a two-pronged assault on Formosa Plastics' expansion plans.

Wilson's contribution was the most dramatic. Over the next half-decade, she went on four hunger strikes, two of them over 30 days and dangerous enough to land her in the hospital. Her shrimp boat was sabotaged twice. She was picketed by 300 Formosa hirelings. A mysterious helicopter hovered over her house, and someone in it shot her dog. Her mother-in-law was shot at, too – this time the shooter missed. Wilson even tried to sink her own boat in protest and was forcibly prevented from doing so.

In the face of all this, Wilson persisted, persuaded that “the legal system is business's game board” and that aggressive grassroots protest is the only way to make real headway. Meanwhile, Blackburn was skillfully working to block the expansion through the legal system.


Crossing the commitment boundary

Eventually their efforts paid off. In 1992, Blackburn signed an agreement under which Formosa consented to the formation of a three-person arbitration panel consisting of Blackburn, a Formosa manager, and an independent third party. The panel was given binding authority over a broad range of occupational safety and environmental compliance matters – quite a remarkable step in its own right, for a corporation to give an outside group the final say in anything. The panel arranged for a facility audit that resulted in over 800 recommendations, all of which Formosa agreed to be bound by.

Wilson signed a separate agreement two years later. This compact focused on wastewater discharges. Formosa agreed to strive for zero discharges, and the panel was given the task of evaluating zero-discharge strategies. That study concluded in 1997 and recommended reverse osmosis. Meanwhile, effluent discharges have been reduced by one-third.

These measures – significant as they are – are only the beginning. In 1997, Wilson, Blackburn, and Formosa signed a sustainable development agreement that had two main goals. First, push for zero emissions across the whole plant. Second, in the words of Jim Blackburn, “establish a long-term collaboration between the company, the community, and the ecosystem.” The objective, he reports, is to “look at where the plastics industry may be headed in the 21st century.”

That's quite a shift. A decade ago, Formosa Plastics was largely indifferent to environmental issues; now its stance toward sustainability places it at or near the head of the chemical industry.

What produced the transformation? According to Blackburn, “Formosa started to realize that many of the questions we were asking, they should have been asking themselves. They realized that working with us could produce real competitive benefits.”

Among those advantages, Blackburn cites a vastly improved record of regulatory compliance and early certification to ISO 14001 (the international environmental-management standard). And, says Blackburn, the company has developed a greater willingness to be proactive and courageous in tackling new challenges.

For Wilson, the key to success lies in what she, following Gandhi's lead, calls “soul power.”

“You have to follow your vision and maintain your integrity,” she says. “Once you cross the commitment boundary, miracles start to happen. ” And how do you know when you've got it right? “When you call smell your fear, you're on the right track.”

In the transformation of Formosa Plastics, Wilson and Blackburn, soul and savvy, made a powerful combination. Of course, as Blackburn points out, Formosa had to be willing to come to the table.


New York City looks upstream

From across the country comes a very different kind of success story. This time the interloper wasn't a corporation; it was New York City, which derives most of its water from the Catskill watershed area about 100 miles north of the city.

At the beginning of the decade, the city was facing the prospect of having to filter its water supply to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. This “end-of-pipe” solution was both ecologically and financially costly. New York City was facing the prospect of building a filtering system at a cost of between $5 billion and $8 billion, with an additional $200-$500 million in annual operating costs.

So the city looked upstream – literally – and drafted regulations that would reduce the pesticides, parasites, phosphorus, and other contaminants flowing into the city's reservoirs. These regulations were impressive in one regard only – their striking disregard for the economic and quality-of-life needs of the upstate communities. Major new restrictions on the farms and towns of the Catskill region would be needed. Watershed residents, many of whom were dairy farmers, formed a Coalition of Watershed Towns and prepared to go to war.

It never happened, thanks to cool heads and collaborative thinking. Upstate watershed farmers through a series of “kitchen-table dialogues,” developed a proposal for what came to be known as Whole Farm Planning: Participating farmers implement measures that control farm-pollutant runoff and waste by decreasing pesticide use and building riparian buffers. In return, they receive technical and financial support from New York City. The city benefits by getting clean water at a far lower cost than it would have through filtering. Close to 90 percent of farms in the watershed area have joined the program.

The farmers were happy, but it was trickier to deal with the municipal sources of contamination, like storm water runoff and septic systems. Traditional small town development tends to cluster near waterways, and many of these streams and rivers feed into New York's massive watershed.

By 1992-1993, a courtroom battle between upstaters and downstaters seemed inevitable. That is, until the upstate Catskill Center for Conservation and Development joined forces with city groups to seek a mediated solution. “We brought high-profile people from the city to meet informally with local leaders,” says Deborah Meyer DeWan, who at the time was a Catskill Center employee. “Gradually this started to infiltrate the formal process.”

Then, new appointees to top posts in New York City and the state government urged a more conciliatory stance.

The parties eventually hammered out a complex, 1,800-page watershed protection agreement under which the city would pay the towns for the additional expenses they incur as a result of ensuring the quality of the watershed area. The city also would help fund economic development that preserves the rural character of the area. In return, the towns agreed to abide by water quality regulations and take economic development plans through an environmental review process.


Not for the hot tub

There are a lot of morals in these stories, and not necessarily the ones you'd expect. John Ehrmann, president of the nonprofit Meridian Institute – which mediates sustainable development issues – points out that the setting still defines the terms of negotiation, including such things as the existing legal/regulatory system and, more fundamentally still, the infamous M- and P- words – money and power.

“This isn't hot-tub stuff,” cautions Ehrmann. Collaborative decision-making wouldn't move forward without these verities hovering in the background – and sometimes, in the foreground.

In addition, stakeholder dispute resolution can follow any of several models. The Formosa agreement took place without proactive intervention from the state. The Catskill watershed agreement probably wouldn't have happened without the active intervention of the governor.

Whatever the model, there are some commonalities. At their heart is the realization by all parties that they're better off working collaboratively than in opposition. When that view is shared, three factors will largely determine the outcome, according to Ehrmann: “the political context, specific negotiation dynamics, and group process.” All three have to be favorable.

Finally, it turns out that collaborative decision-making really serves a dual purpose. Not only does it help resolve specific issues, it also infuses new creativity and participation into a democracy that is badly in need of both.


Carl Frankel is a YES! contributing editor and author of the recent book, In Earth's Company: Business, Environment, and the Challenge of Sustainability (New Society Press, 1998).

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