From Bugs To Breakthroughs- My Path To Environmental Conflict Resolution  

By Deborah Dalton

Imagine a typical public meeting about a controversial local environmental issue, like a recycling center transfer station or preparation for coastal flooding– how did it go? Were people civil? Did they speak their hearts? Did they listen and seek ways to accommodate differences? Was there a decision as a result of the discussion, or a stalemate leaving everybody feeling frustrated?

Every environmental action or decision involves people and organizations who have a wide variety of experiences, approaches, opinions, and needs. EPA frequently navigates these diverse interests under our existing environmental laws.

For the last 30 years, it’s been my job, my calling and passion, to help my colleagues to seek out better, easier, faster ways to accommodate the varying needs of those who depend on us to protect the environment and public health. I’m a Conflict Resolution Specialist within the Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center(CPRC). Our center provides expertise in the design and conduct of public involvement activities and in resolution of disputes for EPA.

I came to this calling in a very roundabout way, as most people do if they are lucky to be curious and flexible (and jobless with a master’s degree). In college, I was a social psychology major. After being inspired by evolutionary genetics in my senior year, I pursued graduate work and teaching in biology, and eventually got hired by EPA as an entomologist.

So, how did this lead to a calling in public engagement and dispute resolution? Well, as I worked on the cleanup of hazardous waste sites in another job at EPA, I was frustrated with a system that forced people into taking positions that were mutually exclusive and then asking a judge to pick one of the options. To me, it seemed to leave creativity off the table and to postpone real environmental progress.

Today, CPRC helps our colleagues navigating these types of conflicts and use communication effectively to craft creative solutions. I give my colleagues easy access to sound conflict resolution processes, including tools like mediators and facilitators, so they can focus on improving the science and policy of environmental protection.

My proudest accomplishment is my role in creating and professionalizing the field of environmental mediation and public involvement as a real, full-time career through the creation of two unique tools: a national EPA contract for hiring professional facilitators and mediators from the private sector and a searchable national roster of environmental facilitators and mediators.

While my career has not been that of a traditional environmentalist (or entomologist), I’ve found ways to use my skills and passion to advocate for creative environmental solutions that protect our communities.

About the author: Deb Dalton is currently a Senior Conflict Resolution Specialist in the EPA’s Conflict Prevention and Resolution Center.  She has worked at EPA since 1976 in programs including enforcement, pesticides, hazardous waste and regulatory policy before committing her career to public involvement and conflict resolution. 

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