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‘Something Happened’: The Relevance of the Risk Society for Describing the Siting Process for a Municipal Landfill

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This paper investigates reactions to a proposed municipal solid waste facility in Southern Ontario supposed to be a low-level, low probability risk using the risk society framework, developed independently by Beck (1992a, 1992b) and Giddens (1990, 1991). Residents often view risk from environmental hazards as high despite expert assurances that risks are low. The appeal of risk society as a general framework is that it connects quantitative risk assessment (QRA) and the social construction of risk (SCR) to show how individuals and social structures reflexively alter and are altered by conflicts over (actual/potential) technological hazards. The analysis involves 30 in-depth face-to-face interviews with residents in Caledon, Ontario, contextualized by interviews with proponent experts (n=4) from the government organization responsible for conducting the siting process. The risk society framework, although developed primarily to describe the effects of high-consequence global hazards, seems well suited to describing local level, low-consequence hazards. The siting process involved a series of fateful moments which upset people's security in particular ways of life. The proposed landfill and the process itself threatened the very nature of what people valued and expected from their community. However, this study raises a concern that the risk society played out at the local/regional level may exacerbate inequalities in the distribution of risks relative to benefits from technological environmental hazards. This stands in contrast with Beck's (1992a) notion that the risks from hazards are equitably distributed within the risk society.
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Keywords: Ontario; equity; expert; landfill; lay; risk society; technological environmental hazards

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Geography, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 2: Institute of Environment and Health, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, 3: School of Geography and Geology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

Publication date: 1999-08-01

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