have become complacent in “using default positions/models to extrapolate risk … that they lose sight of the degree of uncertainty that is introduced with each extrapolated area” (Felter and Dourson 1998:246).
Risk assessments suffer as an effective tool in light of these differing perceptions of risk and the subjectivity inherent in its development. To further examine the weaknesses of environmental risk assessments, when looking at the issues concerning risk communication and minority communities, one must acknowledge the interplay between racism and the environment and the deep reaches of both. Colonialism, and the slavery era, are historical periods that engrained many of the nonecological elements that impact environmental injustices today (Gish 2004:19). The 1863 order freeing the slaves in the Confederate States moved blocks of people from one form of slavery to another (Belohlavek 2013:673). Issues of inequality were not solved by the attainment of “freedom”. In 1896, Plessy vs. Ferguson allowed segregation under “separate but equal” conditions (Butler 2013:1344-1346). This set forth a battle that gave birth to the civil rights movement. Many involved in today’s environmental justice effort see their work as the logical, moral and tactical heir apparent of that earlier civil rights struggle (Downey and Hawkins 2008:759).
There is a general consensus that people of color and those of the lower classes experience disproportionate exposure to hazardous waste and pollution (United Church of Christ 1987). Adverse exposures have been documented for air pollution and lead among urban African Americans (Perlin, Setzer, Creason, and Sexton 1995; Gelobter 1992; Gottlieb 1993:244-250), pesticide contamination for Chicano farm workers (Moses 1993; Chavez 1993), radiation exposure among the Navajo (Proctor 1995:188-192), and waste management facilities in African American and Hispanic communities (Bullard 1990; Costner and Thornton 1990; United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice 1987).
Turning to intent, however, evidence for overt targeting by minority status for hazardous sites is largely circumstantial. Moreover, the actual data supporting the conclusion that minority status of the community is the central determining factor with hazardous site location, have been challenged as less significant than age, income, and other demographic variables as siting predictors (Greenberg 1993). In addition, studies suggesting minority status as the key-siting determinant have been questioned for using inappropriate statistical tests to evaluate differences among population subgroups and for ignoring the racial composition of the community at the time of the initial decision to site a facility (Hamilton 1995, Greenberg 1993). Others have questioned the implication of racist intent with any disproportionate burden and suggest, instead, that the observed outcome is merely the result of housing market efficiency – these lands tends to be the most economically distressed properties hence attracting both the poor and industry (Been 1994).
Hence, feelings of mistrust and mistreatment may be the result of the biases and assumptions built into the risk assessment process, the historical realities and the neglect of acknowledging the differing worldviews between “objective” risk and experienced risk (Lejano and Stokols 2010). Compounded by historical, structural and everyday violence, they may further the “risk assessment gap” related to experienced risk which is often ignored by risk assessment public health policy.
While the methods and science of a risk assessment are well documented, little work has been done into examining the subjectivity of a seemingly objective process (Checker 2007). Using a specific case study, this work will follow risk perception from assessment genesis to community consumption. This research investigated the weaknesses in the construction of risk, the issues that follow with the communication of risk and the problems that come from differing risk perceptions.