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James K. Mitchell

In a gaunt building just outside the gates of Prague's Hradcany Castle, a recent exhibition of photographs chronicled the dismal fate of one of the world's most abused landscapes.1 The portraits of environmental and social destruction in the north-east Czech Republic are graphic reminders of the visible consequences of chronic industrial disaster.2 Here, nearly half a century of rapacious open pit coalmining has stripped away topsoil, gashed the topography, filled hollows with acid drainage, littered the ravaged countryside with discarded excavation machinery, killed off all but the hardiest vegetation, and covered the entire region in a semi-permanent pall of noxious smoke laden with sulphur, heavy metals, and radioactive elements. Close to one hundred villages and towns have been swallowed up and their inhabitants displaced. The health of half a million residents is seriously compromised and the region faces a staggering array of associated problems. The land has been poisoned. Most of the educated youth emigrate; crime rates are soaring; and the incidence of vandalism, alcoholism, and drug addiction has reached epidemic proportions.

The Prague exhibition documented a continuing problem that is largely overlooked by the throngs of tourists who have come to sample the vast sociopolitical, economic, and cultural changes now taking place in the Czech Republic and other parts of Eastern Europe. Most of the vistors streamed past the exhibition without going in, intent on gazing at the architectural wonders of St. Vitus's Cathedral, the castle guards arrayed in new unintimidating sky-blue uniforms, and the sumptuous panorama of medieval Prague spread out below. For the small minority who entered to view them, the photographs seemed to be a kind of memorial to past environmental horrors that are assumed to have become museum pieces along with the former system of government. Sadly, that is a mistaken judgement: the legacy of these industrial disasters is very much a part of contemporary life. The problems remain unresolved (World Resources Institute 1993). In many respects, the plight of the Ore Mountains is a metaphor of modern industrial disasters. Despite considerable successes in avoiding or mitigating some of these disasters, the consequences of others seem capable of outliving the human institutions that created them, condone them, or seek to manage them.

Perversely, long-term recovery from industrial disasters is a subject that has received little attention from scholars and researchers. Most academic and professional writing focuses on cataloguing immediate disaster impacts and losses, identifying causes, and developing appropriate plans for intervention. There are relatively few accounts of short-term recovery in the weeks and months after industrial disasters while those that examine recovery over periods of 5, 10, 20, or 40 years are extremely scarce.

The 10 authors in this book have set out to rectify these omissions. The Long Road to Recovery: Community Responses to Industrial Disaster is based on papers delivered at an international conference held in Minamata, Japan, during November 1992. This was the second in a series of meetings organized by the United Nations University, Kumamoto prefectural government and the city of Minamata. At the first conference in 1991, worldwide industrial releases of toxic metals and their impacts were reviewed and a follow-up programme of research was suggested - including a scholarly assessment of recovery and rehabilitation (Carpenter 1992).

Contemporary thinking about industrial hazards is strongly influenced by the work of risk analysts. They are mainly concerned with establishing rational procedures for identifying potential failures in specific technologies, analysing the consequences of those events, and designing appropriate countermeasures in light of the variability of human judgments and preferences. Risk analysis draws on expertise from physical and chemical science, engineering, the biological sciences, and the health professions as well as inputs from social scientists who are interested in issues of risk perception and risk judgement (e.g. Cothern, Mehlman, and Marcus 1988; National Research Council 1993). Within the field there are differences between what one observer has described as the "two cultures of risk analysis." According to Jasanoff (1993), "'hard' (quantitative) analysis represents risks as they 'really are', whereas 'softer' (qualitative) work in politics or sociology mostly explains why people refuse to accept the pictures of reality that technical experts produce for them." Contributors to the present book mainly employ the "softer" social science perspective. In different ways they underline the contextual character of knowledge about industrial hazards and disasters and the importance of framing public policies in light of local experience and lay knowledge as well as with respect to scientific findings that transcend particular places. Effective public policy must take account of such matters and blend the contributions of both "cultures." Unfortunately, to date there have been relatively few attempts to integrate the two approaches.

This book also adopts a broad view of industrial disasters. Industry is not simply the facilities and firms that turn raw materials and energy resources into usable products; nor are industrial disasters just the fires, explosions, leaks, spills, and other events that occur in those places as a result of faulty design, improper operating procedures, and other in-plant flaws (e.g. Seveso, Chernobyl, Bhopal). Some of the most challenging industrial disasters of recent years have involved external hazards such as extremes of nature and human conflict. For example, the oil and gas industry has been afflicted by many such problems. Among others, they include the fracture of Arctic oil pipelines during earthquakes in Russia, the ignition of petroleum products leaking from pipelines undermined by floods in Texas, seafloor pipelines left exposed to collisions with passing ships after storms redeployed covering sediments, and the deliberate destruction of oil facilities during the 1992 Gulf War (National Research Council 1994; El-Baz and Makharita 1994). Clearly, industrial facilities are often susceptible to disaster-causing events that occur beyond their boundaries, and the effects of disasters do not necessarily stop at the plant gates. Nor do disasters disappear with the decline or cessation of industrial operations: major legacies of hazard may be left behind in the form of dangerous wastes, ravaged environments, and moribund communities (e.g. Minamata, Centralia, the Black Triangle). A comprehensive approach to public policy-making for industrial disasters must take account of all these aspects of the problem.

The present study contains seven case-studies of events and consequences that can be broadly described as "industrial disaster surprises." All are connected with the process of industrial production and all are, in some sense, unprecedented. Nothing quite like them had ever occurred before in the same or similar contexts. The case-studies are arranged in chronological order and include one example of chronic chemical contamination (Minamata, Japan), a continuing underground fire (Centralia, USA), two sudden airborne releases of toxic chemicals (Seveso, Italy; Bhopal, India), a nuclear reactor explosion and fire (Chernobyl, USSR, and successor states), a seven-year-long military conflict that produced widespread destruction of industrial facilities (Iran-Iraq war), and a massive oil spill (Exxon Valdez, USA). The first of these disasters was initially detected almost fifty years ago (c. 1949); the most recent occurred in 1989.

Case-study authors are drawn from seven different countries and half a dozen separate disciplines. This provides a variety of interests and perspectives, but most contributions follow a similar format that is intended to allow for ease of comparison across the various sites. After this Introduction, the book opens with a call for a new system for conceptualizing and managing industrial hazards and disasters. James K. Mitchell, a geographer born in Northern Ireland and working in the United States, assesses the changing global burden of industrial disasters and suggests that surprises should be distinguished from routine disasters because they pose increasingly serious problems for industrial managers, hazards professionals, and the general public. He develops a classification of surprises to serve as a point of departure for identifying robust and flexible coping strategies. Learning from and transferring - the lessons of places that have experienced industrial disaster surprises lies at the heart of his proposed research strategy. This chapter serves as a springboard for the case-studies that follow.

Chapter 2 is a broad-based, victim-centred analysis of the notorious Minamata "disease," prepared by a professor in the Department of Literature at nearby Kumamoto University. Sadami Maruyama chronicles the toll that has been exacted by the long uphill struggle of different groups of victims to gain recognition and restitution. The community has become deeply and rancorously divided. Traditions of mutual assistance have been fractured, and a long-established myth of common interests between industry and citizens has been overturned. Nearly half a century after it appeared, Minamata's disaster is still a defining event in the lives of most residents. Although much has been done to shape a new post-disaster future, many problems remain unresolved or unattended to. The author characterizes Minamata's experience as both a failure of government to protect the health and welfare of citizens who possessed little power to act in their own behalf and the outcome of a flawed public ethic that promoted unfettered economic development at the expense of citizens' rights to a safe environment.

Chapter 3 examines a small American town that is menaced by an expanding underground fire. Here, the term "recovery" takes on a special meaning because most of Centralia's population has moved away and the remainder are likely to follow. The town will soon cease to exist! Drawing on evidence from social surveys and detailed observations, Stephen Couch, an American sociologist, paints a picture of a former "company town" that lacked a political tradition of acting in defence of its resident's interests and was ill prepared for conflicts that developed in the wake of the fire. The Centralia case raises serious questions about the validity of existing "stage" models of post-disaster recovery in communities affected by "contamination" disasters. These posit a gradual return to "normal" after disaster that does not fit the Centralia case. Couch offers an alternative model that suggests that contamination disasters generate multiple interpretations of causation and risk, leading to intensive community conflict, alienation, and coping difficulties. Activities of recovery and emergency response occur simultaneously in repeated cycles, eventually culminating in one of two outcomes - relocation of the affected community or apparently successful technological fixes that permit it to continue in place.

Compared with Centralia, the long-term outcome of Seveso's dioxin contamination disaster has been different. Although in the period after the event there was a major controversy marked by physical attacks on people and property, as well as a general political crisis, not only did the affected community survive intact but the recovery period was marked by fewer of the rancorous tensions between industry, government, and the local population than occurred elsewhere. Far from retaining its initial well-justified association with a frightening disaster, the name Seveso has now come to be associated with successful high-technology management of chemical hazards! This curious development occurred not because the disaster itself was well managed in the affected community but rather because of the dramatic changes in European-wide public policy that it spurred. The Seveso experience is analysed in chapter 4 by a team of sociologists and philosophers of science from Italy and the United Kingdom. They focus on the formulation of new European Community regulations for chemical risk management that were developed after the accident. The so-called "Seveso Directive" is a precedent-breaking measure that seeks to reduce industrial accident risks by publicizing information about hazardous facilities and communicating it to groups that are responsible for public safety on a "need to know" basis. Although the Seveso Directive is something of a showpiece for rational top-down planning approaches to industrial safety, Bruna De Marchi and her colleagues suggest that its apparent success is perversely paradoxical for both scientists and public policy makers. They caution against drawing simplistic lessons from Seveso's deeply contradictory experience.

Paul Shrivastava's analysis of Bhopal (ch. 5) emphasizes the dizzying complexity of modern industrial disasters and their impacts on corporate management as well as surrounding populations. Because most involve mixes of technological and human causes that are both antecedent and proximate, it is difficult to attribute blame to any one culpable party. Nor is it always clear which is the appropriate judicial jurisdiction for resolving compensatory or punitive lawsuits. The continuing spread of multinational corporations into third world countries increases their exposure to legal actions abroad as well as at home. The author, a professor of management who was born and raised in Bhopal and now works in the United States, reminds us that industrial disasters rarely produce many - if any - "winners." In this case, not only were several thousand people killed or injured in India with only limited compensation, but the Union Carbide Corporation came close to collapse. It is clear that disaster impacts are not confined to the obvious victims. Corporate restructuring in the wake of industrial disaster carries with it the possibility of additional losses of jobs, income, and other benefits among employees, investors, and host communities associated with the offending firms.

The Bhopal chemical disaster mostly affected people in India and the United States, but the effects of Chernobyl's nuclear power station disaster involved large populations throughout much of Europe and Asia, as well as the world's entire nuclear power industry. The Canadian historian David Marples focuses on institutional effects of the Chernobyl disaster (ch. 6) during a recovery period that overlapped with dramatic changes in the geopolitical arrangements of Russia and Eastern Europe. Unlike Seveso, where the institutional response has been toward greater centralized planning and management of industrial risks, the opposite process is at work in the Ukraine, Belarus, and to a lesser extent - Russia. The difficult lessons of grass-roots institution building in a region of fragmenting states may be disquieting for those who hope to encourage greater decentralizing of risk-management decisions.

The Iran-Iraq war was not an industrial disaster in the conventional sense, but its effects were similar because military conflict inflicted heavy damage on industries, especially Persian Gulf oil facilities, and these in turn released hazardous materials into surrounding communities and ecosystems. Hooshang Amirahmadi adopts a planner's perspective on the post-war recovery process in Iran and shows very clearly how disasters and development are closely intertwined (ch. 7). He emphasizes the lack of detailed information about the environmental effects of wartime industrial disasters, the overwhelming priority given to economic issues, and the dominant role of centrally directed planning and management of recovery efforts (except in the housing sector). Despite the fact that such a strategy is poorly designed for responding to disasters with highly localized patterns of loss, the author suggests that most third world countries will probably favour centralized responses because national government institutions are significantly stronger than those at the local level. The influence of World Bank development policy is detectable in Iran's emphasis on giving priority to restoring selected industry, infrastructure, and services on key sites rather than an across-the-board programme of postwar recovery. Amirahmadi also argues that the all-too-common urge to blame external enemies for wartime losses is counter-productive to recovery efforts because it prolongs the state of tension between former combatants and diverts much-needed resources into defence budgets.

The Exxon Valdez experience clearly demonstrates that much more effort is devoted to assessing the impacts of disasters than the effectiveness of recovery (ch. 8). It also shows that there are important barriers to analysing recovery. For example, it has been difficult to gain a coherent and comprehensive picture of the recovery process in Prince William Sound because research has been commissioned and carried out by many different agencies and organizations, with only limited synthesis or coordination among the various groups. Also, one of the most remarkable side-effects of the disaster has been the gagging of social science research by legal constraints. Information that might be relevant to ongoing lawsuits is rarely permitted to be published until the legal proceedings end. It is effectively lost to the disastermanagement system until too late to be of use in recovery efforts. Data on responses by fishing communities and native populations are particularly scarce. None the less, Nancy Davis, an American cultural anthropologist, is not persuaded that the small and seemingly vulnerable - communities of southern Alaska have been stricken by this disaster beyond their capacity to make a substantial recovery.

In the book's final chapter, Mitchell draws together principal findings from the case-studies, examines their implications, and makes suggestions for future research on industrial disaster surprises. He highlights the record of slow, delayed, uneven, and incomplete recovery, as well as identifying a plethora of attempted institutional changes and their often paradoxical outcomes. He judges this as evidence that existing public policies are systematically undermatched and mismatched with the problems of industrial disaster surprises. The chapter ends with suggestions for repositioning industrial disaster public policy to take account of a much wider range of issues than those that are currently addressed.


1 "The Black Triangle: The Foothills of the Ore Mountains," an exhibition of photographs taken between 1990 and 1994 by Joseph Koudelka and displayed in the Salmovsky Palace from 29 June to 4 September 1994. The area of 300 square kilometres that is featured in this exhibition lies between the Ohre and Bilina rivers, tributaries of the Elbe. It is the southernmost extension of the notorious "Black Triangle" that includes larger sections of Poland and the former German Democratic Republic. Coal has been extracted from this part of the Ore Mountains since at least 1403, but production accelerated dramatically during the second half of the nineteenth century. By 1910 it reached 17 million tonnes per year (mostly from underground mines) and fluctuated thereafter until after World War II. Then, with the advent of open pit mining, production rose to around 40 million tonnes in 1960 and 53 million tonnes in 1992. Most of the coal is burned in local electricity-generating stations that are not equipped to remove its toxic constituents.
2 Research on industrial disasters is part of an evolving multidisciplinary enterprise that has yet to standardize terminology. While there is a significant level of agreement about the conceptual definition of disaster (i.e. the situation that occurs when human coping systems are overwhelmed by realized risks), operational definitions of disaster are notoriously variable because different individuals and different institutions have widely different coping capabilities and sensitivities to loss. Similarly, hazard is variously defined as a phenomenon, or a process, or a probability (Alexander 1993). Many languages have no word for hazard and it has not proved to be popular among international agencies. (It was for this reason that the name of the International Decade for Natural Hazard Reduction was changed to the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction when the original US-inspired proposal was taken up by the United Nations.) Similar problems attend the definition of terms such as risk, vulnerability, and mitigation. No attempt has been made to standardize terminology in this book, although most authors generally subscribe to the view that industrial hazards are interactive systems of people, technologies, and environments that can be characterized in terms of risk (potential threat), exposure (populations and property at risk), vulnerability (potential for loss), and response (purposive adjustments).


Alexander, David. 1993. Natural Disasters. London: Chapman and Hall, pp. 4-9.

Carpenter, Richard A. 1992. Industry, the Environment and Human Health: In Search of a Harmonious Relationship. Report of a conference held at Minamata, Japan, 14-15 November 1991. Tokyo: The United Nations University.

Cothern, C. Richard, Myron A. Mehlman, and William L. Marcus. 1988. Advances in Modern Environmental Toxicology, Vol. XV: Risk Assessment and Risk Management of Industrial and Environmental Chemicals. Princeton: Princeton Scientific Publishing Co., Inc.

El-Baz, Farouk, and R.M. Makharita. 1994. The Gulf War and the Environment. New York: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 1993. "Bridging the two cultures of risk analysis." Risk Analysis 13(2): 123-129.

National Research Council. 1993. Issues in Risk Assessment. Committee on risk assessment methodology, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, Commission on Life Sciences. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Research Council 1994. Improving the Safety of Marine Pipelines. Committee on the Safety of Marine Pipelines, Marine Board, Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

World Resources Institute. 1993. "Central Europe." In: World Resources 1992-93. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 57-74.

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