A new approach to managing hazardous waste sites

BUFFALO, N.Y. – An engineer, a philosopher, a sociologist and an oral historian walk into a room.

It’s not the start of a one-liner. Instead, it’s the unusual mix of academics working on a new approach for the long-term management of hazardous waste sites in the United States.

Environmental engineer Alan Rabideau and colleagues want to integrate community engagement with science, engineering, ethics and policy in the long-term management of hazardous waste sites in the U.S.

Often called brownfields or superfund sites, these are former steel mills, oil refineries, old military bases and other contaminated grounds that threaten public health. With thousands nationwide, the estimated cleanup cost, already billions of dollars, continues to climb.

The traditional method is to focus on technological solutions based on cost and their potential to improve public health. But a research team from the University at Buffalo and Canisius College argues that, in many cases, that decision-making paradigm is not an adequate way to examine the problems associated with hazardous waste sites.

For example, it doesn’t typically consider if the potential solution is sustainable or whether it will create more problems for future generations. It also doesn’t lead us to consider whether it’s more advantageous to focus on low-cost containment measures instead of costly programs with limited chances at success.

“We’re not advocating that everyone seal off these sites and walk away from them,” says Alan Rabideau, UB environmental engineering professor and the team’s principal investigator. “We will examine emerging concepts that focus on long-term management rather than expensive but ineffective cleanup technologies.

“Our approach will differ from purely technical assessments by integrating community engagement with science, engineering, ethics and policy.”

Using a three-year, $796,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the team will visit sites to conduct hundreds of hours of interviews with various stakeholders including, but not limited to, citizens, government and public health officials, and scientists. The team also will conduct focus groups, phone interviews and workshops.

They will then use new database tools to draw inferences and develop a more complete picture of the sites and their effect on nearby communities.

“There’s a human element that revolves around the idea of value which can be incorporated into these projects to bring about more appropriate responses to the challenges presented by these sites,” says Kenneth Shockley, UB associate professor of philosophy, whose research focuses on environmental values and how they are expressed in public policy.

In addition to Shockley and Rabideau, the other research team members are: oral historian Michael Frisch, research professor of history at UB and director of The Randforce Associates, a UB spinoff company that provides multi-dimensional indexing for audio recordings and other services; and Erin Robinson, associate professor of sociology at Canisius.

The grant, part of an NSF initiative dubbed INSPIRE (Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education), will fund two doctoral, one master of science and several undergraduate students.




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