Hazardous Waste and Toxics: Real Data for Real Places

This page is authored by Richard Kujawa, Professor of Geography at Saint Michael's College in Vermont.
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Initial Publication Date: March 15, 2013 | Reviewed: July 21, 2015


In this activity students combine directed work in a computer lab with independent work outside of the lab. Students work directly with a series of online Federal databases to explore geographies of environmental hazards, the nature of the threats they pose, and the types of remediation result. Students identify and assess the threats of hazardous waste sites on the National Priorities List of Superfund; examine the geographies of toxic releases into the environment using the most recent Toxics Release Inventory (TRI); and explore the combination of the two with a link to the fate and exposure of selected pollutants and their toxicological profiles using the TOXMAP service of the National Library of Medicine.

Themes include the differences between Superfund and TRI; concepts of liability and the principle of "polluter pay"; examination of the reasons and potential impacts of disclosures under the TRI; comparison of place-based cases in published environmental justice cases; consideration of the concept of fate and exposure of particular chemicals; basic study of environmental remediation; research methods for geo-referenced socio-economic research; and assessments of place-based environmental justice advocacy in a "ground truthing" vein. Students complete a pre-designed and directed worksheet and also conduct self-directed research. Responses are both written and numerical with an additional submission of a set of presentation-ready graphics.

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Learning Goals

Students will reinforce basic knowledge of Superfund and the Toxics Release Inventory with hands-on use of data bases and reports related to each. They should learn one way in which geo-referenced pollution data can be accessed online and how hazards, their impacts, and potential remediation are assessed and examined by the Environmental Protection Agency. They will see how the "polluter pays" principle breaks down when no responsible parties are identified and how pollution problems from waste become a collective responsibility which requires significant levels of funding and long periods of time to remediate. They will identify basic ways to consider the socio-economic parameters of environmental justice and ways to collect Census and other data for their characterization. The activity also introduces the concept of "ground-truthing" environmental justice cases with data and analysis from government sources. Basic understandings of toxicology and environmental fate and exposure can be introduced in the TOXMAP component of the activity.

Students engage in critical thinking and the synthesis of ideas from the broad parameters of environmental policy; environmental justice and environmental advocacy for specific empirical cases. In self-directed work, this may include additional research activity involving media and other sources.

The strongest potential connections between Environmental Justice and Geo-Science are in discussions of fate and exposure (in two contexts – Superfund sites and chemical-specific research) and in remediation (remediation of polluted groundwater or toxic soils are common.) The specifics of the directed work could be easily engineered to enhance those connections and tailor inquiry to places/cases of particular interest.

Context for Use

This activity has been implemented in a heterogeneous group of college students from 2nd year to 4th year in a course required for Environmental Studies Majors and Minors at a Liberal Arts College. The activity provided is the middle component of a sequence lecture/discussion, the lab, and a post-lab presentation/discussion session. Designed for a computer lab, the activity could be assigned without the lab if in-class or video instruction is provided in advance. Comfort with the internet is probably the basic skill as well as some sense of pollution hazards. Background knowledge of environmental justice; the evolution of the policies that produced the data bases; basic toxicology and other components are introduced in a lecture/discussion before the activity. Lab time should be at least 2 hours but, again, could be reduced if advance instruction is provided. Class size of 20 or less is probably appropriate. The activity could be adapted for a shorter time period by paring down one or more of the modules involved. It could also be simplified or adapted to particular contexts – for example, considering only Superfund to consider liability, remediation and brownfield redevelopment. The level of difficulty could be increased by extended explorations of geo-science aspects of fate and transport or the chemical/biological impacts of pollutants or by adding full-blown group projects for case study development.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students will have been prepared for the activity with some background reading, lecture and discussion of the evolution of policy and practice for hazardous waste, toxics and environmental justice.

The design of that block of material will be heavily dependent on the niche of the lab in the course context. The lab document (which is attached) should be made available to students in hard copy but could also be available in advance in electronic format through a course-management system.

The lab packet is included as a document as WORD file. It can adapted to suit time period and learning goals of the particular class context. hazardous_waste_toxics (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 26kB Mar15 13)

Teaching Notes and Tips

KEY FIRST STEP: TEST each and every procedure in the activity each time it used. Since website designs evolve and dates/content of reports change this is critical to avoid confusion. My experience is that changes are minimal but you need to test.

Several components of the lab involve specific places, these are easily changed to accomodate instructor preferences but TEST for responses before assigning to a group.

Some components of the lab involve places from specific cases the students have read and discussed -- these can be replicated or adapted to cases of your particular interest -- again TEST for availability of data.

A note for student execution:

Instructor should emphasize that following the instructions is critical for directed work. Graphics and maps may render in different ways on IPads or phones and so using computers themselves is critical without further testing. There are many pathways through the EPA sites (especially Superfund) and confusion/getting "lost" is possible. A methodical procedure is the key here.

This is less important (and actually a lesson in and of itself) for the self-directed research but the key research skills are established in the directed component of the lab.


For directed activities, numerical and short written answers will assess the aquisition of basic skills.
For open-ended and optional presentation activities, standard writing/presentation asssessment practices apply. A scoring rubric is not available at the present time.

References and Resources

The activity is self-contained. A supporting set of references for the pre-activity lecture/discussion/reading can be provided.