Courting Environmental Justice: Science, Community Knowledge and Public Health

Lin Nelson, The Evergreen State College

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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


Every now and then an environmental dispute makes its way into court; there are the occasional civil trials and the more rare criminal trials. The long-developed federal criminal case around WR Grace and asbestos exposure in a small Montana mining town provides for an exploration of how conflicting parties do research, present the science, draw on community-based knowledge and shape the landscape of environmental justice. A court-case of this magnitude invites students and faculty to look into the particulars of the issue at hand - in this case asbestos contamination, occupational and environmental health, and the potential for remediation. It also offers a modern "morality-play" and socio-legal drama around the development and contest of evidence, the connections between expert and lay knowledge, and the complex deliberations between the corporation, the government and the public over environmental hazards and the possibility of recovery-into-sustainability or "just sustainability."

The WR Grace criminal trial, lasting a few months, ended in an acquittal on May 8, 2009. Our class journeyed into the case in "real-time" following the news and the work of students at the University of Montana who analyzed it day-by-day. While this teaching-learning module was developed when we followed the case in real-time, it can be adapted for a range of learning experiences regarding environmental justice, argumentation, strategizing, remediation and just sustainability. The acquittal was followed by the Environmental Protection Agency taking an unprecedented stand on June 17, 2009 - announcing a "public health emergency" in Libby, the first ever declared under the federal Superfund law.

Learning Goals

Participating in environmentally contested court-dramas, via the proxy-classroom, can invite students to try on a number of perspectives and explore different knowledge systems. The prospective social scientists, scientists, attorneys, public sector staff, community advocates, labor strategists, ethicists, among others, can examine, critique, shape and re-shape their sense of how they as participants might approach a significant case about environmental hazard and remedy. They also get to critically explore and test an evolving repository of data, knowledge and contested claims.

Context for Use

Occupational/environmental health is of central significance in the struggle to shape a sustainable future. This arena of harms-done and harms-to-prevent is worrisome - and often avoided because of the emotional, ethical, analytic and strategic challenges. But, there are ways to learn about these often complex, and seemingly interminable and irresolvable issues. Students can learn by being witnesses to - and role-players in - community cases that represent real-life struggles. One way is to teach-and-learn from community cases that go onto the legal stage -- that is community anguish over environmental harms that make their way to court. A court case, complex and messy though it can be, provides substantial and unusually transparent material for students to explore and to try on, as analysts, as advocates, as court-room dramatists.

A single court case can be highly significant, setting socio-legal precedent, impacting the evolution (or devolution) of science, re-shaping governance and setting paths to reconciliation and environmental justice. A court case, either historic or in real time, allows students to "try on" positions, to examine evidence, to develop and sharpen argumentation, and to role-play strategies. Students can be both "in the case" while looking critically "at the case" from the outside.


This module is planned for a two-week interval, but it can be more concentrated or extended in time, depending on the class and purpose. The key time consideration is for the class to receive the assignment in anticipation of a study/preparation period, where students individually or in small groups (preferably in small groups) prepare through careful exploration of the case. The actual court role-play could be a one-time, in-class session of 1-2 hours, or a more extended time-frame, through installments over a few weeks. Some key time needs to be set aside for post-court discussion. If the case, as is the Grace-case, is in real-time and coinciding with the class, then the group can intermittently watch the case evolve over a longer period of time. What's essential is that students do the preparatory research, prepare for one or two positions and come in ready for argument/exploration of the case. Depending on the class, it could be introduced at a number of places, most probably mid-term, with sufficient time for preparation and follow-up discussion.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment

(Some rendition of the following is delivered to the class):

We are about to learn about and immerse ourselves in a very significant environmental dispute that has made its way to court. Your job is to prepare yourself by learning about the background to the case (science, regulatory, justice, health, citizen, sustainability features) and then taking on one or more positions that you'll represent in the class-role-play-scenario of the case.

The key case we're exploring is the US government versus WR Grace company, a supplier of industrial, agricultural and landscaping materials. The company was launched in the mid-19th century and emerged in the post-World-War-Two-era as one of the world's leading industrial interests. It has also been marked by substantial controversy, leading to many community controversies, scientific investigations and legal disputes. A major civil trial (over hazards posed to the town of Woburn, MA in the 1980s) came to text and film in "A Civil Action". You will want to use our resources (see appendix) to familiarize yourself with that earlier case as background about the company's legal posture and the pathway of a related community story. Then you will look into the current case, a rare federal criminal case against the company for "malfeasance" (look up the meaning of this word) in the town of Libby, Montana. WR Grace is currently on trial for various charges: obstruction of justice, conspiracy, knowing endangerment, wire fraud.

Your job is to learn about the case, broadly and then learn about - and be ready to articulate, promote and defend - two of the four positions we are trying on as a class. Our key concern is to expand our sense of the contested knowledge, how information gets structured and delivered in legal disputes, whether and how environmental health is protected and how communities experience cases such as this. Our focal question: What does all this mean for environmental health and "just sustainability"?

The Learning Activities

Do a brief overview of the case, via short report and news/film clips. (see References and Resources section below)

Students agree to learn (singly or in small groups) about the history, the case in question and to focus on developing one (or two) of four positions:

Science: Students prepare the science evidence/analysis, and decide whether/how they will do a sharing of labor on the fields of medicine, occupational health, toxicology, epidemiology, chemistry, etc. Students should look at and take on roles of a range of scientists: corporate-based, agency-based (EPA, ATSDR, state/county), or university-based.

Law: Students can prepare as if part of a trial team for either the defendant (in this case WR Grace) or the prosecutor (in this case the US Attorney General). Students may want to focus on key features of the law, the stated offenses, the preparation of expert witnesses and strategy.

Journalism: How can/should a case like this be covered? Students have the opportunity to see how award-winning journalist Andrew Schneider has followed and covered the WRGrace/Libby story for over a decade; they can examine how his coverage made its appearance in Seattle Post-Intelligencer series, book and blog. They can also explore how journalism students are sharpening their skills through their case-watching and blogging, as well as peruse the offerings of other regional and national journalists.

Community: What is it like for a community to be a player in or witness to a case like this? What role has their concern, knowledge, community-based research and strategizing played in bringing the case to court? What's their experience of having their lives, health, and future be raw material for a case? How do they ready themselves for possible court appearances? How do they connect with the practitioners of science, law and journalism? Depending on the size of the class, this group can divide into groups pro or con or neutral about the case, and workers/retirees, in relation to neighbors/families.

Key Questions for Each Perspective:

What is the knowledge base and/or key questions at stake for each group?
(Identify what is known or argued.)
What is the ethical base (expressed or implied) in each perspective?
What is the strategic framework and /or goal for each?
How do they argue and/or present their position/s in public (in this case in a court of law)?
How could you provide at least one illustrative moment of courtroom drama that captures some/all of these perspectives?
What does each plan/hope to accomplish?

NOTE TO STUDENTS: It's very important that you do not simply take a position for or against the company in this case. In fact, if you are inclined against WR Grace, it's most important that you study and be ready to role-play the defense of the company. With the science question, be ready to think carefully about and dramatize what it would be like to be a scientist who is (or is trying to be) impartial and drawn in as an expert witness. This case is more important than a simplistic good-guys-bad-guys late-night-movie. It's essential to learn about the knowledge, the dispute and the long-term impacts. In the end, feel free of course to cultivate your own (possibly very strong) opinion.

The class assembles for at least one round of preparation/argumentation and review of the case's implications. First students meet with others who have prepared on one of the four positions to shape, critique and develop their position/s. (ex., all the science folks meet together, all the legal, etc.) Then students meet in groups of four (at least, it could be more) so that each of the four vantage points is represented. This is where each student (or teams) must present at least one of the knowledge-systems (science, law, journalism, community) in collaboration/contest with the others. This can be shaped around a series of questions that the whole group has developed for evaluation. It can also be shaped more directly around the questions noted above.

Student Handout (Microsoft Word 52kB Oct25 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This scenario can be helpful in not only giving a platform to classroom-thespians and wannabe-lawyers, but in pulling in more quiet students who have much to contribute as researcher/strategists. Everyone - no exception - has a role to play and information/judgment to offer. That being said, some students will jump into the real-time demands of court-drama, while others will be the more observant scribes and analysts. All features of participation can be effectively harvested post-role-play.

The whole scenario can be adapted and morphed as teachers/students see fit. Different features can be played up --- such as the nature of proof and evidence in science vs. law, the difference between civil and criminal trials, the role of journalism and observation. The positions (science, law, journalism, community) can be made more complicated - for example, in science, the relations between clinicians and bench scientists. New categories or sub-categories can be developed - including the folks who actually do environmental clean-ups. The students can take an active role in play writing the script before everyone goes off to study up on their positions.

The general features of the exercise can be applied to other cases, old and new. Students and faculty might take the Grace case and search for comparative environmental health/justice cases, exploring the relationship to cases where communities-of-color are in harm's way and/or in resistance to harms. The Grace case focuses on issues of class and workplace vulnerability, with its distinctive location in mostly Anglo rural Montana. Students could use the tools/lessons of the Grace/Libby case to cultivate a compare/contrast journey into the ever-evolving landscape of environmental justice and just sustainability. How other communities look at this rare criminal-case and the "first declared public health emergency" will shape the continual efforts to seek justice in the many and varied hazardous, at-risk places. Students/faculty can use/apply/critique the Libby case as a template, model, "morality play" or measure of how people are treated in different places.


(Possible Assignments)

  • Students prepare preparatory field notes on the position they're formulating and articulating. These are shared/evaluated by faculty and students as a collective ethnography of a case-in-motion.
  • Students write a 3-page draft of a statement of position, with selected evidence, to be presented.
  • Students write a 3-page retrospective of the proceedings, with preliminary conclusions reflecting their current judgment on the case.
Assessment is based on student preparation, participation in the event/s and on the writing (both position and retrospective) on the case. The in-class scenario (possibly over a few installments) preparatory research, team planning, and post-scenario writing demand a range of skills and efforts. Depending on the class (level, focus, skills and knowledge being developed), the assessment can pay more or less attention to a range of demonstrated work: planning, team strategizing, research, writing, oral presentation, post-scenario analysis.

References and Resources

There are extensive materials available on the WR Grace case, due to its notoriety (the Hollywoodization of WR Grace case in Woburn MA in the 1980s), and the attraction its drawn from journalists, analysts, attorneys and citizen activists. The science and ethical features are powerful, stirring many discussions and resources. Students and faculty can consult texts, articles, in-real-time court observations, blogs, videos, news footage, science text and legal/governmental documents. See Student Handout attachment in the Description and Teaching Materials section for the materials that provided the base for this module when it was taught in April 2009. Any future adaptation/use should involve some updating of the resource section.