Sociology and Environmental Impact Assessment

By Gismondi, Michael | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview
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Sociology and Environmental Impact Assessment

Gismondi, Michael, Canadian Journal of Sociology

1. Preparation for this paper was funded in part by the SSHRC Grant # 806-92-0040. Thanks to Joan Sherman, who helped with research and writing in all aspects of the paper.

Abstract: The paper indicates how a critical sociology could contribute to environmental impact assessment (EIA), and argues sociologists must become involved in evaluating the EIA process itself. Topics examined include: how EIA excludes and frames social issues; why social science should precede natural science; the social construction of impact science; bias and the circulation of EIA consultants; and fairness when talking in public hearings. The author proposes an activist role for sociologists.

Resume: Cette etude demontre comment une sociologie critique pourrait contribuer au processus d'etude d'impact environnemental (EIE). Elle soutient que les sociologues doivent s'engager dans l'evaluation de l'EIE elle-meme. Les themes abordes sont: comment l'EIE exclut et concoit des questions sociales; pourquoi les sciences sociales devraient preceder les sciences naturelles; la construction sociale des sciences d'impact; le parti-pris et la circulation des experts-conseils de l'EIE; l'equite des orateurs dans les audiences publiques. L'auteur propose une fonction activiste de la part des sociologues.


[If] there had been proper EARP [environmental assessment review process] scoping sessions, we might have seen 20 professional social scientists here from the federal government, as we saw natural scientists this morning. It would have been, I think, a recognition that socio-economic impact issues are just as important a study, and that communities need as much assistance in coming to understand what this [pulp mill] project's impacts might be as the assistance they need in understanding the impacts on the water, air, and wildlife. Michael Gismondi (Public Hearing Proceedings, 1989: 2959) Speaking before the Alberta-Pacific Environmental Impact Assessment review panel in 1989, at federal-provincial public hearings on the world's largest single-line bleached kraft pulp mill proposed near Athabasca -- my home town -- I was one frustrated sociologist. Two dozen federal natural scientists had just concluded days of scientific and technical testimony on whether the Peace and the Athabasca rivers could assimilate more pulp-mill pollution. Representing research centres across Canada, and joined by Alberta government scientists, these fisheries specialists, water quality experts, pulp-mill pollution control technicians, biologists, chemists, engineers, computer simulation programmers, and science bureaucrats tore into Alberta-Pacific (Alpac) studies predicting environmental impacts. They questioned completeness, accuracy, narrowness or breadth of research, reliability, applicability, proposed mitigation and more. Alpac fought back with science consultants (private and academic), experts from PAPRICAN (the Canadian pulp and paper research institute), and technical specialists from the United States and Scandinavia.

Extensive questioning by government specialists of the social sections of Alpac's environmental impact assessment (EIA) did not occur. Science was the primary concern of the official EIA process. Sociological analysis of the natural science conventions used in EIA appeared to be the last thing on the minds of review panel members. But should EIA review be so one-dimensional?

In Canada, if a large-scale project such as the Alpac pulp mill or the Arctic Diamond Mine (Gibson, 1993; Richardson, et al., 1993; Wismer, 1996) is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects, an independent EIA assessment is ordered. This also applies to international projects with substantial federal funding (Appiah-Opoku, 1994; Lawrence, 1994; United Nations, 1987). The environment minister appoints an EIA review panel, calls for public hearings and sets out terms of reference to consider environmental and socio-economic effects.

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