You are a full-time professional mediator. You have worked as part of a highly regarded public dispute resolution firm for the past decade. You have a master’s degree from a top urban planning school, where you specialized in city design and development. You also have independent certification as a mediator as well as a great deal of experience mediating both court-connected and non-court-connected disputes. Your usual hourly rate is $150, plus expenses, and your time is fully booked for the coming year.
There is an effort underway in the city of Rimsdale to develop a trash-to-energy plant near the coast. A global corporation has proposed to build the plant, which will process 2,000 tons per day from all over the metropolitan area. Rimsdale, a city of 200,000 people, will be able to burn almost all of its own solid waste, generate enough electricity from a steam turbine to meet approximately 5% of the city’s energy needs, and co-generate enough heat to operate a number of industrial warehouses near the plant. There are a lot of good arguments for and against the plant, and for building it on the specific site proposed, which the developer already owns. On the environmental front, proponents of the plant argue that this is a form of renewable energy, replacing dirtier sources, and that the plant allows for the efficient sorting and recycling of glass, metals, paper, and some plastics. Opponents claim that all trash-to-energy plants give off dangerous dioxins and other forms of air pollution; that piles of trash waiting to be burned will attract rats, gulls, and other vermin; and that an inevitable product of these plants is a toxic ash that is dangerous wherever it is buried.
From an economic standpoint, the plant would be a major taxpayer and would offer the city a much less expensive way of disposing of its own trash, which it currently ships to an out-of-town landfill at an exorbitant price per ton. Opponents claim that these kinds of plants are incredibly expensive to operate and, once the town comes to depend on the facility, they will be at the mercy of the company, which will jack up its fees. They also see this as an undesirable use of waterfront property, undercutting the long-term prospect of more valuable development along the coast. Environmental justice groups claim that the endless parade of trucks carrying trash to and from the plant will create health and safety risks, along with a loss in property values, for homeowners along the route. The low-income community of color that currently lives near the industrial site that the plant developer has purchased is afraid of the health impacts that will be visited disproportionately on them. Proponents of the plant argue that a community like Rimsdale should take responsibility for its own waste and not ship it to some other unsuspecting region or marginalized community.
The company has applied for a number of required permits. The public hearings on these permits have taken on a circus-like atmosphere. A resident who lives along the proposed route that the garbage trucks will take has filed a lawsuit against the company. Other lawsuits are expected. The city has agreed, at the suggestion of a local university, to participate in a mediated effort to try to resolve the question of whether the trash-to- energy plant should be built, and if so, under what circumstances. A local foundation has agreed to cover your fee.
There are at least 15 obvious players who need to be involved, from various city agencies to different community associations and advocacy groups. Everybody wants to know from you (1) how long it will take to mediate this dispute, (2) what you will do to make sure that everyone is treated fairly (including those without the money to hire lawyers and technical consultants to represent them), and (3) how you will guarantee that whatever is worked out informally will get implemented.