Academic journal article Human Organization

"But I Know It's True": Environmental Risk Assessment, Justice, and Anthropology

Academic journal article Human Organization

"But I Know It's True": Environmental Risk Assessment, Justice, and Anthropology

Article excerpt

Few social issues depend as heavily on scientific information as environmental problems. Yet activists, governmental officials, corporate entities, and even scientists agree that much of the science behind environmental risk assessments is controversial and uncertain. Using a low-income African-American neighborhood as a primary case example, this paper illustrates in concrete terms how environmental risk assessments can exclude the experiences of the poor and people of color. Further, race and class experiences intensify a community's susceptibility to, and perceptions of, risk. These experiences and perceptions underpin the ways that communities contest scientific biases in everyday practice. After discussing alternative approaches to contemporary risk assessment that combine ethnographic research with other kinds of scientific expertise, I conclude by offering a four-fold model for resolving some of the problems raised by this essay. This model draws upon multiple kinds of knowledge bases and includes research, advocacy, policy recommendations, and theoretical innovation.

Key words: environmental justice, science and culture, racism, United States

In September 1993, over 200 residents living in the Hyde Park area1 of Augusta, Georgia gathered in the Jenkins Elementary School cafeteria. Residents had come together that night to attend a meeting with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The meeting's purpose was to announce the results of a $ 1.2 million EPA study of the area's air, groundwater, and soil. Data from this study had provided the basis for a health consultation, compiled by the Agency for Toxic Disease Registry (ATSDR), the results of which were also to be discussed that evening. The health consultation was of primary concern to meeting attendants, as it would determine whether and to what degree their health was at risk from environmental contaminants. Although most of the people living in the area were homeowners, they could not afford to move unless they sold their homes for a competitive price. Rumors of contamination and the area's general economic and social decline (Hyde Park was especially known to be a drug-dealing hub) made selling homes extremely difficult. The results of the ATSDR's risk assessment would determine whether or not residents would find assistance-either from the U.S. government or through legal action-to move out of a neighborhood that they firmly believed was contaminated by the surrounding industries.2

The EPA's Field Investigation divided the Hyde Park area into five neighborhoods. Investigators found high levels of arsenic, chromium, and dioxin in the surface soils and groundwater of two of those. In all five neighborhoods, they found significant levels of PCBs and lead. However, the ATSDR announced that night that these chemicals did not constitute a significant threat to residents' health unless they "inadvertently ingested it on a daily basis for many years" (Health Consultation Final Release 1994).3 Residents received this news in a fury. At one point in the meeting, one man presented the EPA's division director with a four-gallon bucket of sludge he had just taken from the ditch in his backyard. Offering the EPA official the sludge, the man asked him to smell it and then say whether he would want to live anywhere close to it. The crowd in the packed cafeteria shouted, "Answer, answer," and the official replied, "No." Over the next few minutes, tensions continued to escalate until one man threw a chair onto the Jenkins stage, marking the culmination of three year's worth of mounting frustrations, tensions, and fear.

When they tell this story, Hyde Park residents shake their heads and chuckle. They argue for a little while over who threw the chair. Yet, eight years later, they still puzzle over why the EPA and its sister agency, the ATSDR, are unable to correlate unusually high levels of contaminants with high local rates of certain illnesses. …

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