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He's Part Coach, Part Referee

Environment: When industries clash with the communities that surround them, Michael Lythcott often gets a call.

May 01, 1997|DANNY FEINGOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Michael Lythcott came to the embattled neighborhood of Harbor Gateway last summer, there was poison in the air. Fed up with living in the shadow of a chemical graveyard, residents of this Torrance-area community had managed to initiate negotiations with their corporate adversaries--Shell Oil, Dow Chemical and Montrose Chemical. But the talks were marred by venomous distrust and the sides quickly deadlocked, raising the specter of a long and potentially fruitless struggle.

Then Lythcott went to work, armed with the conviction that common ground could be found. Nine months later, a historic settlement was announced. For the first time in a Superfund case, the responsible companies voluntarily agreed to buy out a neighborhood and pick up the tab for relocating residents. The deal, which also calls for environmental cleanup measures at the Del Amo Waste Pits, will cost Shell and Dow an estimated $10 million. The federal government will also foot part of the total bill, which is not yet determined. (Montrose walked out of the negotiations and now faces an array of lawsuits.)

The agreement represents the latest in a series of breakthroughs for Lythcott, who has created an unusual niche in what's known as the environmental justice movement. Over the last few years, he has helped contaminated communities from Florida to Louisiana to California escape the sometimes lethal legacy wrought by American industry.

Yet Lythcott, who's based in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., is less a toxic avenger than an environmental peacemaker. Though he considers himself an advocate for the mostly poor neighborhoods saddled with America's chemical-waste burden, his weapons of choice are dialogue and compromise.

"What I see now in my work in environmental justice is what I call a ritual defensiveness," says Lythcott, sitting in the offices of the Del Amo Action Committee, half a mile from the waste pits. "If you're the polluter, I anticipate your argument. If I'm the community, you anticipate mine. And no one's really listening. No one is pausing in the confrontation long enough to see whether the landscape has changed."

Indeed, the relationship between communities and polluters has shifted continually over the last 20 years. First came government regulations designed to rein in the industrial giants that for decades contaminated neighborhoods with virtual impunity. Then grass-roots organizations began to spring up around the country, galvanized by the political awareness that dumping toxic waste in economically desperate areas amounts to environmental discrimination. This pervasive pattern, documented in both government and private studies, gave birth to the environmental justice movement, supported not only by advocacy groups but the federal government.

As a result, corporate executives--though not necessarily more ecologically enlightened--are far more sensitive to public health concerns than in the past. Realizing this, Lythcott has devoted himself to breaking down the barriers between communities and the companies they view as their enemies.

"What I'm doing is teaching communities how to speak in a way that they can be heard, because at a certain point you have to decide: Do I want to be right or do I want to be effective?" he says.

In the Del Amo case, leaders of both parties to the dispute attest to his skills.

"I don't think we could have been successful without Michael's help," says Del Amo Action Committee leader Cynthia Babich, who, like many residents of the largely Latino 204th Street neighborhood, has experienced serious health problems that she believes were caused by asbestos, benzene and other toxic substances buried near her home. "I think we would have beat each other over the head."

Chuck Paine, who represented Shell in the negotiations, echoes that view. "Michael recognized the emotional issues and allowed the people to express themselves. But then he'd take them back and tell them, 'Here's the reality.' Without him, the negotiations would have broken down."

*

As his dizzying resume shows, Lythcott has spent most of his adult life as a peripatetic champion of communication. After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, he became a trainer for Vista and later the Peace Corps, overhauling those organizations' cross-cultural curricula to reflect the principles of empowerment and self-reliance.

Switching gears, Lythcott moved into the corporate world, applying his knowledge of cultural sensitivity to employee training for such clients as General Motors, DuPont, CBS and ABC. Then, in 1989, he went to work for Prudential as an environmental relocation specialist; a few years later, he struck out on his own as an independent consultant for communities seeking refuge from what he calls "toxic ghettos." The progression, he says, was a natural one.

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