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Where Has All the Hazardous Waste Gone? For Answers, Ask Prof. Scott Frickel

By Don A. Dillman

Scott Frickel.Each year U.S. manufacturers report depositing more than 3 billion pounds of hazardous waste into on-site landfills – a figure that the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges vastly understates the scope and complexity of the problem. What happens to the environmental legacies of these industrial practices over time? And, what are the implications of such legacy contaminants for contemporary urban residents and policymakers and for a sociological understanding of urbanization processes more generally?  Prof. Scott Frickel, associate professor of sociology, recently appointed to a three-year term as the Boeing Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sociology, is providing answers to these questions.

In “The Historical Nature of Cities: A Study of Urbanization and Hazardous Waste Accumulation”  that appeared in the August issue of the American Sociological Review (78(4): 521-543) Frickel and University of Oregon sociologist James R. Elliott proffer answers to these and related questions. To do so, they developed a unique longitudinal dataset containing geospatial and organizational information on more than 2,800 hazardous manufacturing sites operating between 1956 and 2006 in Portland, Oregon. These site data were then paired with historical data from the U.S. population census and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to examine the historical accumulation of hazardous parcels in relation to changing patterns of industrial land use, neighborhood composition, new residential development, and environmental regulation. Results of their study indicate that historical accumulation of hazardous sites is scaling up in ways that exhibit little regard for shifting neighborhood demographics or existing regulatory policies as sites merge into larger, more contiguous industrialized zones of historically generated hazards.

This study is part of a larger project that investigates socio-environmental transformation of urban lands in Portland and three other historic river port cities: Minneapolis, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. This comparative environmental sociology of cities was recently selected for publication by The Russell Sage Foundation and the American Sociological Association as part of the Rose Series in Sociology. The book, provisionally titled Urbanization’s Changing Nature, represents the first environmental sociological study published in the prestigious series.

Frickel, also organized a National Science Foundation supported workshop with cultural anthropologist Kim Fortun of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute titled, “Disaster Science and Technology Studies: Advancing an Emerging Field.”

The two-day event brought together an interdisciplinary group of Science and Technology Studies scholars to advance social scientific understanding of disaster by considering how science and technology (broadly understood) conditions disaster and disaster recovery. The workshop’s primary aims were to 1) clarify the transformative theoretical potential of Disaster STS by rethinking  disaster, risk, vulnerability, and recovery; 2) develop an initial research agenda that emphasizes reflexive, comparative and collaborative studies and bridges the STS and Disaster Studies communities; 3) identify strategies for building international research and outreach capacity; and 4) create a basic organizational structure for governance, planning, and communication across a rapidly expanding network of interested practitioners.

These publications and related activities contribute importantly to the continuing development of Environmental Sociology as an area of emphasis in the Department of Sociology. The Department has a long legacy of defining and developing this important field of sociology that began in the 1970’s with seminal contributions being made over many years by former sociology faculty members William R. Catton, Riley Dunlap, Eugene Rosa, William Freudenburg and James F. Short Jr.