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Toxic Expertise: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - ToxicExpertise (Toxic Expertise: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry)

Reporting period: 2020-02-01 to 2020-11-30

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. The first stage examines toxic expertise in the leading global petrochemical companies and environmental NGOs in Western Europe, North America, and China. The second stage focuses on in-depth case studies in the United States and China, two of the top petrochemical producers in the world. The third stage develop an international public resource of toxic expertise to address practical challenges of capacity and scale inherent within fenceline environmental justice campaigns, by developing accessible information and tools for understanding, monitoring, and mapping toxic emissions and community mobilisations around the world.

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. The project develops sociological insights into the complex ways that expertise works within and in relation to global petrochemical industry, including perspectives of multiple stakeholders. 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.

All of the research objectives have been met by the conclusion of the research action. First, the research has shed light on the shifting dynamics and networks of corporate power in the global petrochemical industry, and on corporate uses of technical expertise across multiple scales and fields. Second, in-depth qualitative and mixed method research has been carried out in fenceline petrochemical communities in the US, China, and Europe. Third, the research team developed the “Global Petrochemical Map” as an international, interactive participatory mapping resource.
From the beginning to the end of the research project, work has been completed on all three work packages, including data collection and analysis for work packages 1 and 2 and the development of the international 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 and participant observation at industry events. We have also conducted field trips to investigate petrochemical areas within Europe, including in Fawley (UK), Grangemouth (UK), Porto Marghera (Italy), and Antwerp, to complement research for Work Package 2.

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. 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.

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 interactive participatory mapping resource “The Global Petrochemical Map” in summer 2019, that seeks to make petrochemical connections around the globe visible, including 75 case studies around the world.

By the end of the project, academic publications include: 10 peer-reviewed journal articles (published or in press); 5 further articles (under review) in peer-reviewed journals; an edited book Toxic Truths: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry (Manchester University Press, 2020); and a monograph by the PI: Petrochemical Planet: Multiscalar Battles of Industrial Transformation (under contract, Duke). In addition, the research team has continued to publish the quarterly e-magazine Toxic News since launching it in November 2015.

Since the beginning of the project, we have organised an annual project workshop, and we have also disseminated our research at a number of academic and public events. A three-day final project webinar series was held in September 2020.
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 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.

The Toxic Expertise research project has pushed the boundaries of social scientific research on expertise through critically analysing competing perspectives on toxic expertise, scrutinising their limitations, contradictions, and possibilities. We have identified three key cross-cutting findings across this research: enduring systemic environmental injustice burdens in marginalized communities around the world; different local capacities to mobilise expertise to ameliorate toxic exposures; and multiscalar battles between multiple stakeholders over the stakes of industrial transformation amidst escalating ecological crisis.

Our edited volume Toxic Truths (Davies and Mah 2020) highlights the crucial relationship between environmental justice and citizen science in an age of post-truth politics.

The forthcoming research monograph Petrochemical Planet (Mah) will combine insights from across the project as a whole, examining multiscalar battles for transforming a toxic yet essential industry.
Toxic News e-magazine 20th Issue Nov 2020
Science in Public Keynote Visual by Laura Sorvala 2018
Global Petrochemical Map logo by Alice Mah
Toxic Truths Book Cover