Rabach, K., T. Schütz and K. Fortun. 2020. Environmental Injustice Fast Disaster Case Studies Summer 2020Disaster STS Network. University of California Irvine.


These case study reports focus on “worst-case” scenarios for the release of toxic chemicals in five communities in Los Angeles County. Every report addresses a series of ten questions that draw out local details in a manner that encourages comparison with other places. The research has been done quickly (within the constraints of a quarter-long undergraduate class) so is limited to and points to the need for further research and community engagement. The goal is to help build both a body of research on environmental injustice and a network of researchers ready to help conceptualize and implement next-generation environmental protections. 

In environmental policy, a “worst-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 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The information provided isn’t fully online because of concerns that it could be useful to terrorists. This makes it particularly important that researchers, residents, workers, media, local officials and emergency managers work together to ensure that risks are understood, managed and continually reduced.  

In this research,  “worse case scenarios” are considered “fast disasters” to contrast them with the “slow disaster” of everyday pollution.  It needs to be emphasized, however, that even though fast disasters erupt in a dramatic way – often with an explosion or gas cloud that requires an emergency response -- this doesn’t mean that fast disasters occur suddenly.  Investigations have shown that all fast disasters have a deep backstory: they were years in the making. These backstories need to be documented to understand where things went wrong and where changes could prevent future disasters. 

A 2014 report by the Center for Effective Government mapped the proximity of high-risk chemical facilities in California to schools and found that 49 percent of P-12 students attend a school within the vulnerability zone of a high-risk chemical facility (Center for Effective Government 2014).  


Case Studies


to read students' case study research reports