Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Trust, Risk and the Public: The Case of the Guelph Landfill Site

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Trust, Risk and the Public: The Case of the Guelph Landfill Site

Article excerpt

I would like to thank the CJS Editor, the two anonymous reviewers, and Dr. Scott Davies, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft. I would also like to acknowledge Professors Ralph Matthews, John Eyles, Cyril Levitt and Arthur Mol for their guidance in the doctoral dissertation on which this article is based.

Abstract: This paper investigates the role of trust in mediating the expert-lay interactions that took place in the recent Guelph Landfill Search Process (GLSP). On a theoretical level, I shall discuss how the emergent expert-lay trust relations, as well as the types of issues raised in the GLSP, were influenced by the conditions of the risk society outlined by Ulrich Beck. It is concluded that a lack of general trust in technology and technical expertise is now a critical variable in the management of modern environmental risks and that the GLSP represents an example of an institutionalized response to this situation.

Resume: Cette etude examine le role de la confiance en la mediation des interactions entre experts et profanes qui ont recemment eu lieu au Guelph Landfill Search Process (GLSP). Sur le plan theorique, je discuterai comment les conditions de la societe au risque soulignees par Ulrich Beck ont influence les rapports de confiance qui emergent entre experts et profanes, ainsi que les types de problemes souleves au GLSP. La conclusion sera qu'un manque de confiance generale dans la technologie et dans la competence technique est maintenant une variable cruciale dans le controle de risques de l'environnement modernes, et que le GLSP represente un exemple d'une reponse institutionnalisee a cette situtation.


This paper investigates the role of trust as a central factor involved in the relationship between lay individuals and those responsible for the management of environmental risks (such as public officials and particularly technical experts). It is argued that new public consultancy techniques and a drive for increased accountability are leading to the adoption of new strategies and mechanisms of environmental risk management which are explicitly designed to address the issue of trust. A recent landfill search conducted in Southern Ontario will serve as an empirical referent to illustrate some of these changes at the local level.

A "development issue" soon becomes a "risk conflict issue" if individuals and groups concerned with the associated risks of a proposed undertaking mobilize to change the path of development (Freudenberg and Pastor, 1992: 390). In this study, I will examine the role of trust in transforming a landfill issue, once considered a purely "development issue," into a modern "risk conflict" issue. It will be shown that such a transformation may be understood in the context of the risk society thesis proposed by Ulrich Beck (1992).

In the past, the risks of a landfill were not known and landfills were sited without any real consideration of environmental or health impacts (Estrin and Swaigen, 1978: 229). In contrast, today it is known that landfills generate leachate -- a toxic solution formed by the mixing of rainwater with decomposing waste. The resultant environmental and health risks stem from the fact that leachate may escape the landfill and travel through the underlying soils to eventually contaminate a community's drinking water supply. Modern landfills now utilize various technologies (such as plastic liners and a system of collection pipes) to contain the leachate. Technical consideration is now also given to the soil types and hydraulic connections existing at proposed landfill sites because various soils offer varying degrees of resistance and pathways for leachate infiltration.

As knowledge about the risks of landfills became known, the management of leachate became a matter that was exclusively dealt with by members of the technical community (particularly hydrogeologists and civil engineers). …

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