Skip to main content

Researcher Describes How Local Knowledge Shapes Environmental Justice Issues


View of refinery from a residential street in New Sarpy, La. Photo taken in February 2006
Credit: Gwen Ottinger

At lunchtime on 7 June 2001, lightning struck a several million-gallon gasoline tank on the grounds of an oil refinery in New Sarpy, Louisiana. It took firefighters 13 hours to put out the blaze, which filled the air with an alarming smell. Worried that the burning tank might be releasing harmful chemicals, some residents collected air samples with simple equipment and sent the samples for lab analysis. The results revealed several potentially hazardous chemicals, but officials at the refinery and at regulatory agencies dismissed the findings.

The scenario is a classic case of environmental justice being waylaid, according to Gwen Ottinger, research fellow in the Environmental History and Policy Program at the Chemical Heritage Foundation's Center for Contemporary History. She studies community involvement in environmental issues, especially how community groups use technical resources, such as air-sampling equipment.

"That response to dismiss citizen engagement with science in the context of environmental justice issues misses the mark. It deserves a closer look," said Ottinger, speaking at a AAAS-hosted seminar on environmental justice.

The event was part of a seminar series co-sponsored by AAAS and the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The Chemical Heritage Foundation is a non-profit organization based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The series explores the history of science and technology policies and is open to the public. AAAS members, policy analysts, representatives from non-governmental organizations, historians, and others comprise the audience.

"Gwen's research illustrates how environmental and social justice considerations challenge regulatory science and policy," said Amy Crumpton, who manages the AAAS Archives and organizes the monthly series. Speaking after the seminar, Crumpton added: "Gwen's work encourages citizens to participate in protecting their communities."


Gwen Ottinger

Ottinger—an anthropologist by training—examines how science comes into play in environmental politics. The New Sarpy anecdote that Ottinger shared with the AAAS audience follows the pattern of community members smelling something bad and collecting samples. The low-tech sampling method involves a vacuum pump, a five-gallon bucket containing a plastic bag and attached to a hose. Residents pump the plastic bag full of air and then send the bag to a lab, which analyzes the chemical composition of the air.

On another occasion, separate from the June 2001 gasoline tank fire, New Sarpy residents collected air samples that revealed a benzene concentration nearly four times the annual average for ambient air. The finding alarmed residents, but—also in keeping with Ottinger's typical environmental justice tale—officials at the offending industry and at regulatory agencies dismissed the findings.

Ottinger explained to the AAAS audience that officials did not take the community's findings seriously, because the officials say it is not possible to compare a five-minute air sample taken on a single day to the lumped, average of an entire year's worth of air measurements. But residents insist that their measurements be taken seriously by those in power.

Ottinger agrees with them and says that residents' data can be used to complement other data sources. She said that the community-derived data is like a friend giving you directions to her house as opposed to relying on an internet site's directions. The friend's directions will likely include helpful landmarks—turn left at the gas station, veer right after the school—that other data sources lack. "We need local knowledge to create robust science," Ottinger said. Local knowledge comes from direct experience with a place over a substantial period of time, she said.

The so-called "bucket data" collected by residents provides local knowledge. Bucket data can turn scientists' attention to a different set of questions, supplement scientists' data, and add contextual information, she said. "Scientists haven't acted upon the knowledge that buckets raise," Ottinger said during the 16 June AAAS seminar. "There's a significant gap in how local knowledge can help fill in chemical problems."

Residents have reason to be alarmed by strong smells in their communities. Ottinger said that some people report health problems, including trouble breathing and worsening heart conditions, when their community's air reeks. The Centers for Disease Control indicates that headaches, fatigue and sleeping problems can also result from exposure to air pollutants.

In some communities, residents also report fertility problems. Ottinger shared the now-famous story of Love Canal, where a Niagara Falls, New York, landfill had leaked into a canal, and women living in the community seemed to have a greater chance for a miscarriage. Toxicology tests revealed benzenes and other pollutants in the air, soil and water in and around the canal. But no correlation existed between how close the women lived to the polluted canal and the incidence of a miscarriage. From talking to elderly residents, researchers learned that streams had once run through the area. The streams had dried up years ago, but they were suspected to continue to exist as underground streams, or swales.

Researchers examined old maps, and they found a correlation between miscarriages and proximity to the underground streams. While the "swale theory" has some critics, it does demonstrate the importance of historical knowledge of communities, Ottinger said. She also said that knowing behavioral patterns of residents can help identify sources of toxic exposure, such as fish consumption, swimming or bathing in polluted waters.

After the 16 June discussion, Ottinger described her recommendations of how communities, industries and regulatory agencies can work together. She said that community members draw attention to peaks and hotspots, but they should also look at day-to-day, ambient levels of exposure. While the acute exposure can cause some health concerns, Ottinger said that she isn't aware of any reliable data showing that the spikes of polluting air pose significant health risks. "Probably the best way to get data is to do real-time monitoring to look at both peaks and averages and start correlating those with health outcomes," she said.

Scientists must take some notice of data collected by residents, otherwise residents don't trust recommendations the scientists make if the spikes in pollution aren't acknowledged. "They will continue to talk across purposes until everyone gets involved in asking the right research questions," Ottinger said after the AAAS seminar. "Scientists think they know the right questions and are invested in certain methods. But community groups will inevitably turn that on its head. They're looking at the data from a different angle."

Back in New Sarpy, where Ottinger lived for a year while collecting her dissertation data, residents have settled a lawsuit against the oil refinery and have ended their relocation campaign. When the refinery was sold in 2003, the new owners expanded operations and established good relationships with the community. And the residents, Ottinger said, are "still hanging in, hoping nothing else happens."

[Want to learn more about citizen involvement in environmental justice? Download "Assessing Community Advisory Panels: A Case Study from Louisiana's Industrial Corridor," a 2008 report from the Chemical Heritage Foundation.]


Molly McElroy

Related Scientific Disciplines