Conflict Resolution

Introduction and History

Military installations and defense communities must work together to support successful, mutual partnerships that respect community needs and capabilities, while preserving and promoting military missions. During such efforts, it may not be possible to avoid conflict due to differences in goals, objectives, politics, and environmental or operational constraints. This does not mean that defense communities must resign themselves to conflict resolution strategies that are solely reactive. Instead, it is far more productive to be proactive and consider, discuss, and address potential conflicts before they arise, rather than waiting for angry letters and emails.

It is important for military installations and defense communities to collaborate and resolve conflicts by understanding each other's issues, establishing shared definitions and communication channels, and coming to mutually agreeable decisions. Many benefits can be realized by preventing or resolving conflicts, including accomplishing shared military and community goals, strengthening stakeholder relationships, enhancing positive economic impacts on local, regional, and state economies, and ensuring that Department of Defense (DoD) missions and goals are met.

The traditional approaches taken by many government organizations, including the military, have been to make decisions unilaterally and then inform others what has been decided. This approach often created contentious relationships between the military installation and its surrounding communities. It also ended up slowing or stopping the military projects from occurring, which negatively impacted the mission. Seeing that neither the community nor the military (or other government facilities) were benefitting from this approach, the government and communities began to embrace a more collaborative approach and open and honest communications. As this new approach was put in place, stakeholders realized the results were better for all parties. However, this evolution was not all self-initiated; it was also driven by legislative pressure and advocacy from environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club. Examples include:

  • The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), also known as Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA). Passed in 1986, it requires every commercial and government facility using, storing, or manufacturing hazardous chemicals make public its chemical inventory and any releases to the air, land, and water.
  • Executive Order 12088, Federal Compliance with Pollution Control Standards, signed in 1988 requires all federal agencies to comply with environmental laws and regulations.
  • The Federal Facilities Compliance Act (FFCA) of 1992 amended the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and waives sovereign immunity so that states can sue the federal government and collect fines and penalties.
  • Executive Order 12856, Federal Compliance with Right-to-Know Laws and Pollution Prevention Requirements, signed in 1993, requires federal facilities to maximize the practice of pollution prevention and confirmed the requirement to comply with EPCRA requirements.
  • Environmental groups successfully sued the federal government in the 1980s and 1990s because many federal agencies were not following environmental regulations passed in the 1970s through the 1990s.

These actions often resulted in adversarial relationship between military installations and regulatory agencies, and, in many cases, the communities and public impacted by military installation operations affecting their quality of life. At the same time, such requirements were new and challenging to many military and civilian leaders who had never dealt with them before. Some even remained convinced that DoD didn’t need to comply due to sovereign immunity, or because they thought state governments didn’t have the authority to regulate federal property.

A prominent example of adversarial relationships and the limitations of conflict resolution involved the Massachusetts Military Reservation (MMR), now known as Joint Base Cape Cod. Military operations from the 1900s through to the 1980s had contaminated, but not cleaned up, the sole public water source on Cape Cod for its 200,000 year-round residents. The contamination was allegedly first noted when a groundwater sample caught fire during analysis. Subsequently, the military tried cleaning up the contamination with little community input. Even after establishing a Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), in accordance with DoD policy, it failed to get buy-in on the proposed cleanup solutions. All parties – EPA, state, military, and residents were divided and not willing to enter a formal conflict resolution process or discussions to resolve the problem.

In response, the Air Force, supported by a consultant, designed, and facilitated a new, collaborative process that clarified roles and responsibilities, structured the meetings and discussions to avoid confrontation, increased the amount of information available to all parties, and presented options to clean up the groundwater. The effort took 10 years and cost $750 million, but were it not for this new collaborative approach, cleanup may never have occurred.

As the military and the other federal agencies slowly became more diligent and began to comply with environmental laws and regulations, practiced pollution prevention, and cleaned up sites polluted by past activities, they also realized that the adversarial relationships continued and were not producing desired results. Communities questioned the effectiveness of site remediation because they were not provided any information on the type and quantity of contamination, nor the methods used to contain or remove it.

Learn More

Conflict Resolution Evolves to Collaboration and Partnering
Collaboration in Action
Collaboration Best Practices

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