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When People Don't Want a Cleanup

The usual storyline with respect to contaminated sites pits concerned residents against risk-minimizing corporations and government. While officials solemnly declare that there's no problem and that their assumption-laden studies have proved objectively that there's no health risk, local people point to their own experiences through years of living near the site, sometimes compiled through a "folk epidemiology" like Lois Gibbs's famous cancer survey in Love Canal. When sociologists write about the importance of respecting local knowledge and listening to the community's preferences, what they almost always mean is that governments need to be more precautionary and clean up more risks. Both technocrats and democrats can at least agree that by and large the public is afraid of more risks than officials are.

But it doesn't always work that way. My hometown, Palmerton PA, is a Superfund site. And while we have a contingent of people who think the EPA is grossly underestimating the risks, there is an even larger segment of the population that thinks the risks are over-hyped. These people are more worried about the fact that the Superfund designation stigmatizes the town.

Another example is the town of Dewey-Humboldt in Arizona, where the EPA wants to list their huge mound of mine tailings as a Superfund site. But many residents oppose that plan. For some, it's about property values (which are often a reason people support cleanups). Others present a contrast between local knowledge and official science that's very similar to what we see in the common cases described above -- except that the conclusions are reversed:

Terry Nolan, a resident since 1971 who owns land that could fall within the Superfund boundaries, disagreed.

"I don't see any health risks. I'm not dead. I'm not dying," Nolan said. "One hundred years this stuff's been blowing back and forth across the city, and there's no one with any health risk."

One interesting common thread in Palmerton and Dewey-Humboldt is the role of the polluting corporation's current manifestation. In Palmerton, the owners of the zinc smelters have been generally very helpful in providing funding for the cleanup. In Dewey-Humboldt, an entrepreneur affiliated with the current mine owners has offered to clean up the mine on his own dime, in the hopes that he can turn around and make a profit selling the cleanup technology. This contrasts with the more usual paradigm of the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie and their executive committee.


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