READ AND REMEMBER (all mentioned in reading):

  • environmental racism
  • fenceline communtiy/zone
  • just transition
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
  • Vulnerability Zone
  • Worst Case Scenario 


  • Complete Quiz
  • Write 2 Discussion Posts


Last week, we focused on “Homo Toxicus” -- what humans have become as toxic chemicals from industrial sources have become part of our lives and built into many systems we depend on – our agricultural and food system, for example.  We also explored many reasons it is difficult to deal with toxic chemicals – because they are often slow to show effects, because of the economic and political power of the corporations that manufacture them, because of inadequate government regulations, and because of  “greenwashing” that confuses people’s perceptions, for example. You also read a short editorial that highlighted how minority and poor communities in the United States are especially impacted – resulting in many cases of environmental injustice.

 Last week, I asked you to pay special attention to  this question: Why is it so far hard to reduce environmental health threats?  Continue to take notes on this. I want you to recognize many reasons toxic chemicals and environmental injustice are difficult to deal with, requiring very inventive approaches in science, engineering, government and community organizing. 

 This week, we’ll also pay more attention to the other questions that we’ll return to throughout the course: What produces environmental health threats? How can social science research help us understand environmental health threats and injustice?   

 In the second part of the week, you’ll work in your groups on case studies, addressing a set of social science questions that can be asked in diverse settings to draw out how environmental injustice plays out. You’ll produce case studies this week, and again in weeks 3 and 4.  By the end of the course, you should be familiar enough with social science case study analysis to know when and how it can be useful to you in your later work.

 Click through here  to review the ten questions in the case study analytic framework that we will use.  Scroll down to see pointers on how to answer each question.

 In case study analysis, it is especially important to recognize who all the players are and what stakes they have.   In environmental politics, these players are often referred to as “stakeholders.” Stakeholders are individuals, groups or organizations that have an influence on or are impacted by a problem or project.  When dealing with pollution cases, for example, polluting companies are stakeholders, as are residents living near pollution sources, labor unions, hospitals, schools, businesses, and local, state and federal government agencies. In all course material and case studies, try to identity different stakeholders.  This is a very useful type of analysis in many different settings. (When my students return to visit me after graduating and working for a few years, they often tell me how often they do a quick stakeholder analysis – when working on projects, within the companies they work for, in the communities they live in, and so on).  

 Our topical focus this week – in case studies and in course material for Fast Disasters --  will be on “worst case scenarios” and what I think of as “fast disasters” – and how they produce environmental injustice.  In environmental policy, a “worse case scenario” refers to the potential for catastrophic, fast, often explosive disaster at industrial facilities that handle more than a certain (“threshold”) amount of extremely hazardous substances.  Provisions of the US Clean Air Act require companies to submit worst case scenarios for their facilities to the EPA. The information provided isn’t fully online because of concerns that it could be useful to terrorists. This makes it harder – but not impossible – for people to access and work with the information.  Citizens, activists and researchers can access the information in other ways (in designated reading rooms, for example). The reports you are assigned this week shows you this kind of research.

 I think of “worse case scenarios” as “fast disasters” to contrast them with the “slow disaster” of everyday pollution.  I also, however, want to emphasize that even though fast disasters erupt in a dramatic way – often with an explosion or gas cloud that requires emergency response -- this doesn’t mean that fast disasters occur suddenly.  All fast disasters that I have studied have a deep backstory: they were years in the making.  By studying these back stories, we can identity where things went wrong and where changes in the way things are done could prevent future disaster.  The film recommended (but not required) for this week – The Spill  (Links to an external site.)(about the 2019 Deepwater Horizon Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico) – does a particularly good job drawing out the backstory: showing a long history of negligence and poor safety culture in British Petroleum. 


Material in this module focuses on the 1984 Bhopal chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India, and on Institute, West Virginia, where there is a “sister plant” to the Bhopal plant.  At the time of the Bhopal disaster, both plants were owned by Union Carbide and manufactured pesticides. Early in my career, I did research in both Bhopal and Institute. You can read about it in my book, Advocacy After Bhopal (this isn't required for this course!). 

 The Bhopal disaster is often referred to as the world’s worst industrial disaster.  Up to 10,000 people died in the immediate aftermath. Over half a million people were exposed to toxic gas and many had enduring health effects.  Poor and minority communities in Bhopal were most severely affected (because they lived very near the plant). Today, the abandoned plant is still a major source of groundwater pollution  (because of toxic waste ponds on the plant grounds). Legal cases related to Bhopal also run on. Many people argue that legal decisions related to the Bhopal disaster set bad precedents, making it harder to hold companies and governments responsible for environmental disasters and pollution.

 You’ll watch a film  --One Night in Bhopal (50 min) -- in which the Bhopal disaster is reenacted, portraying different characters impacted by the disaster.  Watch like an anthropologist, asking yourself what shapes the thinking and actions of these characters. Why, for example, does the plant worker portrayed continue to work at the plant even though he is concerned that it is unsafe? 

The film Chemical Valley (55 min)  is about Institute, West Virginia, home of Bhopal’s sister plant. Notice the many different stakeholders here, too – including a university.  This film provides a quick history of the chemical industry but focuses on the Institute community's efforts to plan for a worst case scenario like in Bhopal.

 The very short filmTaking a Stand Against Environmental Injustice (Links to an external site.)(7 min) is about Wilmington California, which also has many high risk industrial facilities, as does Torrance, California, the focus of an assigned article titled  Activists and Oil Refiners Square Off Over Hydrofluoric Acid (Links to an external site.).  The case studies you do this week will focus on these communities.  For a quick sense of how dangerous they are, see Kids in Danger Zones California Fact Sheet (Links to an external site.)

The article titled America's Poorest Minorities at Highest Risk of Chemical Accidents. (Links to an external site.) (2p) will give you a quick sense of how big a problem we have in the United States alone.  All countries that have oil refineries and chemical plants also have to deal with the risks of industrial disaster. 

I’ve assigned two longer reports,  Who’s in Danger: Race, Poverty and Chemical Disasters (Links to an external site.)and  Kids in Danger Zones (Links to an external site.), but only asked you to read a few pages of each (15p total).  These reports will be good research resources for your case studies.  

Again, watch the films through many different lenses: as a film critic (thinking about what you think about the film itself), as an anthropologist (thinking about how people in the film think and why), and as an activist (identifying problems that need to be fixed).  

 After reading and watching course material for this week, you’ll take Quiz 2 and contribute (at least) three posts to Discussion Board 2.  You can view all the questions in advance so that they can guide your reading and watching. If you have trouble finding the details you need in the articles, try an electronic search for key terms. You should read the article through first as that is the best way to understanding its overarching argument and supporting points. 

Read, Listen, Watch, Qui

CeG Kids in Danger Zones Houston (1).png

Image from a report by the Center for Effective Government showing where schools (blue dots) are within the danger zones around chemical plants in Houston, Texas.  More than 270 schools in Houston are in multiple vulnerability zones. The most at-risk school is located in the danger zones of 41 different chemical plants. Many schools are literally right next door to chemical plants.   From Kids in Danger Zones (Links to an external site.).  Kim Fortun grew up in Houston and now does research there focused on environmental health hazards.