Citizens Take on the "Experts." (Toxic Waste Disposal)

By Blumberg, Louis; Gottlieb, Robert | The Nation, May 28, 1990 | Go to article overview

Citizens Take on the "Experts." (Toxic Waste Disposal)


Blumberg, Louis, Gottlieb, Robert, The Nation


The expert, a chemist in the consulting firm hired by the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation, was a bit taken aback as about thirty pounds of unsorted trash, presumably a sample of the city's solid waste stream,. arrived in her lab one day. She was among the army of "experts' the city and Ogden Martin, a big waste company, were paying to smooth the way for a mammoth trash incinerator to be located in a poor black and Latino neighborhood of South Central L.A. The consulting firm, Brown and Caldwell, had been selected to conduct, among other things, tests on the potential toxicity of the ash residue and on the moisture content of the waste. The results were then to be forwarded to the California Department of Health Services, which would decide whether the ash should be designated "hazardous" or "nonhazardous," a crucial distinction in the decision to go ahead with a plant expected to bum 1,600 tons of trash each day.

Once the consultant's tests were performed, the health department moved quickly to provide the "nonhazardous" classification. When later interviewed, however, neither the Sanitation Bureau nor the chemist could document what was actually burned in the test, how the small amount of garbage burned was selected or even if ferrous metals were present in the sample, though the central purpose of the test was to determine if metals might leach from the ash. The use of expertise, one could say, was a matter of doing what needed to be done to obtain the necessary results.

In today's battles over garbage, toxic waste and other environmental hazards, the role of expertise has indeed become more central and controversial. Experts are being called on to evaluate risks, play down uncertainties and provide the scientific and economic rationale for unpopular projects. They have become decision makers by default, as public officials hide behind the guise of "objective assessment' to avoid making tough choices on problems as difficult as waste disposal. In Los Angeles the experts were eventually challenged by outraged citizens, whose opposition made it politically impossible for the project to go forward. As was evident in that case, the deployment of expertise often frames the conflicts between community groups and the waste industry, between 'self-taught' citizen experts and official' experts. Ultimately the waste wars have become wars over terminology and the democratization of information.

A whole new cottage industry of consultants has emerged to provide both technical and public relations services for government and waste-industry clients. "Risk communication," based on numerical comparisons of environmental risks to the everyday risks involved in, say, driving a car or flying in a plane, has become their forte. These expert consultants not only provide their clients with an analysis invariably biased toward minimizing danger; they also offer strategies for convincing communities that such analysis is compelling".

While the blatantly political use of expertise is not a new phenomenon - the debates over nuclear power and 'sanitary' lanfills during the 1970s come to mind-it was the dramatic rise of incineration as a waste-disposal strategy in the 1980s, with its sales pitch about state-of-the-art and risk-free technology, that intensified the conflicts over waste disposal and further elevated the role of the experts. Hightech incinerators, the industry proclaimed, would eliminate unhealthful air emissions - a prime hazard from an earlier generation of facilities - while solving the problem of waste buildup by burning afl kinds of unsorted materials. Technical and scientific consultants were hired to perform perfunctory health risk and environmental impact assessments, some of which, like the Los Angeles toxicity test, bordered on the ludicrous. Policy-makers talked of deferring all judgment until the experts had spoken; meanwhile, they created an evaluation process that inevitably led to the desired conclusion. …

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