EiJ Case Study Framework: Question 2

What environmental hazards are there in this settings, what is their source, and what are their effects on the environment, health, and inclusive prosperity?

This is one of the most extensive questions in the case study framework and differs significantly depending on which type of disaster is being highlighted.

What are fast disasters?

Fast disasters are environmental hazards that erupt quickly, catastrophically, and often explosively, and require an emergency response. Even though fast disasters erupt in a dramatic way, however, they don't occur suddenly. Investigations have shown that all fast disasters have a deep backstory: they were years in the making. Documenting these backstories is necessary to understand where things went wrong and where changes could prevent future disasters.

Types of fast disaster hazards include:

  • Risk Management Plan (RMP) facility "worst case scenarios": industrial facilities that store more than defined amounts of highly hazardous chemicals are required to submit worst case scenario (i.e. the release of large amounts of hazardous chemicals, as in Bhopal) to the EPA. Limited information about these facilities is available online because of concerns about terrorism. RMPs include chemical storage facilities, water treatment plants, oil refineries, and various other types of facilities.
  • Active fault lines with the potential to cause earthquakes
  • Dams with the potential to cause floods
  • Power plants and lines with the potential to cause fires or explosions, including nuclear power plants
  • Hazardous material pipelines with the potential to cause explosions
  • Major roadways used by trucks carrying hazardous materials with the potential to cause explosions

Where possible, responses to this question should document the effects of the specific types of fast disaster threats present in a particular community. For example, information on which specific chemicals are stored by an RMP facility is important for evaluating both the potential damage of a worst case scenario and the appropriate response to it.

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What are slow disasters?

Slow disasters are routine forms of pollution affecting primarily the soil, water, and air. We call them "slow" disasters because the impacts are drawn out and cumulative, causing harm slowly by increasing rates of asthma, cancer, heart disease, and other health issues. In many ways, slow disasters are more difficult to deal with than fast, explosive disasters because people don’t pay attention to them or even think they are normal – especially in communities of color.

There are five primary sources of slow disaster threats:

  1. Polluting facilities are facilities that are generally regulated by the EPA and have permits to emit a certain amount of certain harmful chemicals. These include metal plating facilities, power plants, refineries, and industrial agriculture.
  2. Legacy hazardous waste sites, also known as Superfund sites, are sites where toxic chemicals and other forms of hazardous waste were dumped that are now being remediated by the EPA. Roughly 1,300 of the worst of these sites are including on the EPA'S National Priorities List.
  3. Hazardous waste management facilities are sites where toxic chemicals and other forms of hazardous waste are actively being disposed. While the environmental impacts of these facilities are regulated, they are still sources of pollution.
  4. Most forms of transportation (freeways, major roadways, railroads, and airports) also pose a threat through the production of large amounts of air, soil, and noise pollution.
  5. Various aspects of physical infrastructure can also be sources of slow disasters. The most high profile infrastructural slow disaster is lead, which can be present in the paint and water pipes of older homes and buildings. Asbestos, mold, poor ventilation, and many other chemicals are also infrastructural hazards.

As in fast disasters, responses to this question are most valuable if and when they can identify specific chemicals present in a community's hazards and their effects on people and the environment.

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What are combo disasters?

Climate change causes both fast and slow disaster: it is linked to  increasing incidence of extreme weather (hurricanes, catastrophic flooding, and dams breaking, for example) and also to slow, less dramatic but still very threatening changes -- in water availability, agricultural productivity, disease incidence, and so on. This is why we refer to climate change as a “combo disaster.” These forms of disaster also interact to produce new hazards: for example, nearly one third of all RMP facilities are threatened by rising sea levels.

There are five primary types of climate hazards:

  • Extreme heat and temperature increases
  • Wildfire
  • Drought and water scarcity
  • Extreme weather
  • Sea level rise and flooding

Because all of these hazards have the same root cause (climate change), they are much more interconnected than fast or slow disaster hazards--for example, wildfires are exacerbated by extreme heat, drought, and extreme weather (like increasingly frequent/severe thunderstorms).

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