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  • Hazardous Waste:Evolution of a National Environmental Problem
  • Travis Wagner (bio)

The evolution of hazardous waste into a national environmental problem is a puzzling phenomenon. The public and media perceive hazardous waste to be a major environmental and public health risk. Yet, although the problem of hazardous waste and its resultant contamination has long been known, no one took it seriously until about 1978. An interesting question is, Why did the public and media ignore hazardous waste for so long, particularly during a period of unprecedented public and media interest in the environment, especially pollution, in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s?

Before 1970, waste disposal received little national media and public attention. This would change temporarily with the U.S. Army's program to dispose of outdated nerve gas weapons in the Atlantic Ocean, which was an event too dramatic and sensational for the media and public to ignore. The nerve gas controversy demonstrated that the nation was ill prepared to manage these wastes safely and that the government knew too little about their potential ecological and public health effects. This limited state of knowledge, coupled with the lack of national laws, exacerbated public concern—especially in light of the fact that the nerve gas in question represented only one percent of the Army's total stockpile, all of which would require disposal.1

Given the national media focus, widespread public concern over the environment, and the propensity for Congress to act on environmental problems during this period of heightened environmental awareness, the conditions appeared ripe for establishing hazardous waste as a national problem warranting significant federal action. [End Page 306] However, even with this heightened awareness, media attention and subsequent public concern regarding nerve gas and hazardous waste quickly faded. Although there was federal interest in hazardous waste, it would take multiple attempts and six years before a law was enacted and an additional four years before a regulatory program was in place.

As I argue in this article, the media and public quickly lost interest in hazardous waste and did not view it as a national problem in 1970 for three primary reasons. First, the term "hazardous waste" was not yet in the country's vernacular, which hindered the ability to construct the problem. Second, neither the public nor media could yet grasp the risks of "hazardous" waste because of a lack of widespread association between waste and potentially damaging effects. Third, the nerve gas disposal controversy appeared to be an isolated incident rather than an indicator of a national problem, primarily because the lack of tangible effects: there were no fish kills, reports of chromosome damage, plummeting property values, or widespread reports of adverse health effects. It was not until the sudden and prolonged attention of the national media and public with Love Canal, from 1978 to 1980, that hazardous waste became socially constructed and a clearer association was established between hazardous waste and damaging effects. Only then did hazardous waste appear to be a nationwide problem.

Public perception of risk is a major driver in environmental policy. As noted by J. Clarence Davies III in Politics of Pollution (1970), "The attitudes held by the general public form the ultimate parameters of government action."2 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studies in 1987 and 1990 confirmed that public risk perception was shaping national environmental management priorities rather than being shaped by the perceptions of environmental experts.3 The public's perception of risk is heavily influenced by mass media through identification, framing, visualization, and dramatization of environmental problems.4 Whether the media becomes and remains interested in a problem also depends on the construct of the problem and the conditions under which an environmental problem is discovered. Collectively, public risk perception, media attention, problem construct, and discovery conditions not only determine whether a problem is ripe for a policy response, but they also strongly influence its design, which can have serious implications for future policymaking. [End Page 307]

The evolution of hazardous waste into a national problem demonstrates the importance of sustained public and media attention and their perception of risk. And, as I argue here, the construct of the problem and the conditions in...


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pp. 306-331
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