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Toxic Expertise: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - ToxicExpertise (Toxic Expertise: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry)

Reporting period: 2018-08-01 to 2020-01-31

This research project critically examines the problem of “toxic expertise”, heated debates about the social, economic, environmental, and health impacts of toxic pollution. Toxic expertise has a double meaning: scientific, legal, economic, and civic expertise about the effects of toxic pollution, and the toxic nature of expertise that is used to justify a lack of corporate social and environmental responsibility. The research focuses on the global petrochemical industry as a significant but controversial source of toxic pollution, with unequal regulations and risks across different countries and populations. Debates about the global petrochemical industry reflect conflicting interests between jobs, prosperity, and health. This is an important “wicked problem” that is inherently insoluble and intractable, due to high levels of uncertainty, contestation, and contradictory or incomplete information.

The project is important for society because it offers the first systematic and wide-ranging sociological analysis of the global petrochemical industry in relation to environmental justice and corporate social responsibility. It will develop a collaborative, participatory, and international public resource on toxic expertise as a toolkit not only for communities and academics, but also for corporations, governments, and citizens. The project will develop sociological insights into the complex ways that expertise works within and in relation to global petrochemical industry, including perspectives of multiple stakeholders. Responding to calls within critical social science for the democratization of science, our research will contribute to scholarly as well as public debates about expertise, toxicity, industrial pollution, and environmental justice.

Our overall objectives are firstly, to conduct mixed method, comparative, and interdisciplinary research across a range of scales and perspectives on expertise, environmental justice, and the petrochemical industry. We address the research questions, “How does the global petrochemical industry exemplify the politics of toxic expertise?” and “What implications does toxic expertise have for political action and scientific debate?” Through our multi-scalar and collaborative research, we will develop new empirical as well as analytical insights about the petrochemical industry, its impacts on society, and the role of expertise in informing debates about these impacts. Secondly, the project aims to develop an international public resource of toxic expertise to address practical challenges of capacity and scale inherent within both dominant and citizen-led epidemiology and environmental justice. We plan to develop accessible information, maps, and tools for understanding, monitoring, and reporting toxic pollution and exposures.
Between August 2015 and January 2020, work has been performed on the “Toxic Expertise” project across all three work packages, on track with research objectives. Our main results achieved so far have been to: complete all of our data collection for work packages 1 and 2; continue analysis, writing up, and dissemination of research findings; expand our international, collaborative research networks; and research, design, and launch the public web-based resource for work package 3.

Work Package 1 (years 1-3), “The Global Level”, involves mapping the global petrochemical industry and international environmental justice movement, with a focus on the US, Europe, and China. We have completed all of the 50 interviews for this work package. We have also conducted field trips to investigate petrochemical areas within Europe, including in Fawley (UK), Grangemouth, and Antwerp, used qualitative methods and a resident survey (in Antwerp) to supplement our deeper ethnographic focus in Work Package 2 on the United States and China.

Work Package 2, years 1-4, ‘National, Regional and Local Levels’ involves case studies of Toxic Expertise in the United States and China. We have completed all of the proposed target 100 interviews (50 per case), which includes formal as well as informal interviews, all in accordance with ethics procedures. Both case studies highlight significant lived experiences of pollution and health issues, yet highly ambivalent local attitudes towards pollution and industry. They also highlight inequalities in the exposure of populations to risk, with similarities as well as differences from US social-spatial patterns of environmental injustice.

Work Package 3, years 3-5, “the collaborative, participatory level,” commenced in autumn 2017. The aim of this work package is to move beyond the level of mapping discourses and examining in-depth case studies, to develop a scaled-up international “public resource” of toxic expertise. We launched the collaborative community mapping resource “The Global Petrochemical Map” in summer 2019.

We have several successful events to disseminate research findings, build networks, and reach wider public audiences. We have published 6 journal articles and have a forthcoming journal article and edited book in 2020, with 2 R&R decisions, 2 articles under review, and several other articles under preparation.
Through examining debates about the social, economic, environmental, and health impacts of the global petrochemical industry, from multiple perspectives, scales, and methodologies, this research has progressed beyond the state of the art. Most studies of environmental justice movements and the petrochemical industry focus on single case studies, while most comparative studies of the global petrochemical industry more generally are technical and economic in focus. Our analysis of “toxic expertise” has opened up new questions across different disciplines. We have also developed innovations in multi-sited ethnographic methods, corporate social-spatial network analysis, and mixed methods.

Our research has pushed the boundaries of social scientific research on expertise through critically analyzing competing perspectives on toxic expertise, scrutinizing their limitations, contradictions, and possibilities. Through in-depth empirical research, alongside robust theoretical engagement, we have demonstrated that debates about toxic expertise do not always fit within dichotomies: corporations versus communities, science versus anecdotal evidence, or corporate versus civil rights law. There are competing interests across employment, prosperity, and health, and different understandings and values of how to deal with risk and uncertainty. For example, our research in petrochemical urban villages in China show local perceptions of tolerance and resignation in the face of considerable pollution. Our research also critically examines the role of the circular economy in the petrochemical industry, as part of corporate environmental responsibility, but in relation to forms of expertise.

By the end of the project, owe expect that publications will include: 12+ peer-reviewed journal articles and an open access edited book (Manchester University Press). In addition, the PI is preparing a sole-authored manuscript, based on the corporate ethnography (WP1). In the final phase of the project, we will take steps to ensure the wider impact and continuation of the project’s results beyond the life of the project.
First Annual Workshop 2016