Tag Archives: Love Canal

Book review– Superfund: The Political Economy of Risk

9 Oct

51818097KBL._SY300_By: Rebecca Burton


Whenever someone reads the word “Superfund” in the news media, negative words that come to mind might be, “controversy, delay, outrage, cancer, mistrust,” and the list goes on. Superfund and the political and public battles that go along with it are prime meat for the press, especially when you tie in environmental and health risks and “big government.” Coming from a journalist, I can easily see how these types of stories spread like wildfire. But, John Hird’s suggestions for reform of what he calls an inherently inefficient law that was doomed from the onset, may easily make hazardous waste sites less dramatic and therefore less newsworthy.

Although the book did not focus entirely on the problem with the public’s perception of risk, he did mention it quite a bit and I found what he had to say very insightful. Instead of the usual risk communication books that only cover superficial explanations of why experts are always pitted as “against” the public, Hird put the entire problem in the context of the law itself.

Most generic risk communication books suggest problems such as “mistrust of institutions” are to blame for public outrage, and that greater transparency and honesty are the typical cookie-cutter solutions. Nothing is ever that simple. Since my thesis is focusing on evaluating the risk communication efforts of the EPA and the Department of Health to residents who live near the Koppers Superfund site in Gainesville, this book really put into context the history of the law and why it was flawed from the beginning. By understanding this, I can better understand why communication efforts are so tricky, and may not be the right solution to the bigger problem.

Hird begins by explaining how the public perceives chemical hazards. This is important because ultimately public perception of these problems, along with the pull of legislators, is what prompted the solution of the cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites such as the infamous Love Canal in New York. Ironically, public perception and fear is also part of the problem with Superfund’s inefficiency. Hird suggests there are more pressing and  concrete environmental and health concerns that we should be fearful of and that Superfund sites are not at the top of the list. Hird notes that Americans rate hazardous waste sites as the number one environmental problem (although this book and the study he cited are outdated by now), even when compared to global warming, deforestation and other problems with more “sound” science to back up the claims. The reasons for this fear of chemicals stemmed from many factors.

First, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring garnered national attention to the risks of pesticides. After that, national news agencies began devoting much more space to environmental stories focusing on health risks such as air pollution, water pollution and solid waste. This was a stark shift from earlier environmental concerns, which focused on themes of conservation, wilderness and stewardship.

Hazardous waste sites are a particular concern to the public since they are typically involuntary. Citizens didn’t choose to have a health risk—no matter how minute—near their home or children. The involuntariness is what makes the public angry, even though at most sites, the risk is no greater than chemicals and pollutants one might be exposed to naturally in their everyday lives.

While most of the science today regarding waste sites poses the risks as being minimal comparatively, Hird notes that the amount of uncertainty along with research agendas means the risks could be bigger than we think, or they could be minimal. Most research suggests the risks are overstated.

In addition to the public’s fear of hazardous waste sites, mistrust of the Environmental Protection Agency is another reason that American’s disagree on the risk of hazardous waste site. But the public’s mistrust alone is not enough to cause the spout of blame, conflict and inefficiency that Hird explains has plagued Superfund. Hird also explained that like a small puppy who knows it is in trouble, the EPA sometimes will sulk and hide even more from the public, and will never brag about the accomplishments it has made to Congress, furthering political polarization.

Despite the controversy, the book proposes that Superfund indeed has good intentions, but those intentions are not carried out in the right way. Hird organizes the book into three sections: assessing and managing risks, efficiency, equity and distributive politics, and explaining and reforming Superfund. In each, he proposes some of the problems with each and in the last section he gives some suggestions for reform and the current limitations on implementing them. I will summarize each section, highlighting some of the themes that resonated with me throughout the book and offer my critique on the solutions. Continue reading