Local Knowledge and Human Health Risk: Geographies of Risk

EPA Grant Number: F5C20464
Title: Local Knowledge and Human Health Risk: Geographies of Risk
Investigators: Holifield, Ryan
Institution: University of Minnesota
EPA Project Officer: Hahn, Intaek
Project Period: September 1, 2005 through August 31, 2006
Project Amount: $56,122
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2005) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Tribal Environmental Health Research


The objective of this research project is to investigate the practices and negotiations involved with the development of human health risk and exposure assessments for sites in EPA’s Superfund hazardous waste remediation program. The project focuses on a geographic dilemma facing EPA in efforts to reform the risk assessment process: whether to apply nationally standardized assumptions, protocols, and exposure factors at all sites or to modify these standards to fit particular sites, drawing on “local knowledge.” Although recent reforms to Superfund risk assessment tend to emphasize the development of national standards, the distinctive concerns and issues that have emerged in many environmental justice communities—especially on American Indian reservations—present important challenges both to the universal applicability of these standards and to the appropriateness of conventional risk assessment paradigms.


The two case studies at the heart of this research investigate the negotiations and practices involved with developing human health risk and exposure assessments at two former wood treatment sites in EPA Region 5: the MacGillis & Gibbs/Bell Lumber & Pole Site in the suburban municipality of New Brighton, Minnesota and the St. Regis Paper Company Site in the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Reservation in the small city of Cass Lake in northern Minnesota. My research asks:

  1. how EPA and its partner agencies at state and local levels have constructed exposure models and parameters in these contrasting situations;
  2. how these agencies have identified “local knowledge” and brought it to bear on risk assessment at the two sites;
  3. and how the exposure scenarios produced at each site differ in how they account for and represent health risks to various subpopulations or receptors, such as Native Americans, the “general public,” and recreational transients.

I will address these questions through qualitative analysis of two primary sources of data:

  1. site administrative records and other agency files;
  2. and interviews with scientists and other officials working for agencies involved with the health risk assessments.


Through analysis of archival records and interviews, this dissertation research asks how EPA and its partner agencies have identified and drawn upon “local knowledge” in developing human health risk assessments for two wood treating sites in EPA’s Superfund hazardous waste remediation program. It compares the development of risk and exposure assessments at a site on an American Indian reservation in northern Minnesota, customized in part to account for place-specific traditional tribal lifeways, with a standard risk assessment at a site in the Twin Cities suburbs.

Expected Results:

By describing and analyzing the complex geographic dimensions of the risk assessment process, the dissertation aims to provide a scientific basis for rethinking the dilemma of how to reconcile standardization and customization in hazardous waste risk assessment policy. It will investigate the strengths and weaknesses of privileging the national scale as the primary scale of standardization and the “local” scale as the primary scale of customization. It will also demonstrate the need for a more sophisticated and geographically complex conception of “local knowledge” in risk assessment: specifically, as a “hybrid” that brings together flows of knowledge from multiple perspectives, places, and scales. Drawing on the St. Regis case study, I suggest that the hybrid form of knowledge that has gone into the production of risk assessments exclusively on or near American Indian reservations has the potential not only to contribute to environmental justice for Native communities, but also to transform how risk is assessed at sites beyond reservations.

Supplemental Keywords:

Human health risk assessment, hazardous waste, Superfund, wood treating, remedial investigation, exposure factors, exposure scenarios, local knowledge, geographic scale, American Indian reservations, traditional tribal lifeways, subsistence, science studies, Environmental Protection Agency, EPA Region 5, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota,, RFA, Economic, Social, & Behavioral Science Research Program, Health, Scientific Discipline, PHYSICAL ASPECTS, INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION, ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT, Health Risk Assessment, environmental justice, Waste, Risk Assessments, Environmental Monitoring, Physical Processes, Risk Assessment, ecological risk assessment, hazardous environmental exposures, environmental risks, exposure, local knolwedge, hazardous waste, cultural differences, human exposure, superfund site, demographics, hazardous waste siting decisions, native americans, environmental justice assessment, risk based model, exposure assessment, human health risk, Native American

Progress and Final Reports:

  • Final