A Q&A with Heather Lukacs, program director at an environmental justice non-profit organization and coauthor of “Risk, Uncertainty, and Institutional Failure in the 2014 West Virginia Chemical Spill”

In this post, we speak with Heather Lukacs, a PhD graduate of Stanford University’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. Dr. Lukacs’s work focuses on community-based natural resource management with and for underserved rural communities. Her article “Risk, Uncertainty, and Institutional Failure in the 2014 West Virginia Chemical Spill” in Case Studies in the Environment, co-authored with Nicola Ulibarri and Nik Sawe, lays bare the many and varied failures that led to, and compounded, the 2014 chemical spill that tainted West Virginia’s drinking water supply.

UC Press: Heather, you are originally from West Virginia, and you were finishing your PhD at Stanford when a Freedom Industries storage tank spilled 10,000 gallons of crude 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM)—a chemical used to process coal—into West Virginia’s Elk River. That river is a major source of drinking water in the state. What happened next?

Heather Lukacs in West Virginia.

Heather Lukacs: On January 9, 2014, the governor of West Virginia, Earl Ray Tomblin, declared a state of emergency and issued a “do not use” notice to residents across a nine county area. As residents watched the evening news, they were told not to use their tap water for drinking, cooking, washing, or bathing. Fumes of toxic licorice hung in the air in Charleston—the state’s capital—as restaurants closed before dinnertime, bottled water supplies ran out, some residents left to stay with relatives in unaffected areas, and hundreds began asking questions on social media. Local news sources revealed the culprit—MCHM—a chemical used in the coal cleaning process. The chemical leaked from a storage facility into the Elk River less than one mile upstream of the intake for the regional drinking-water system. My Facebook account lit up with speculation about this chemical and its potential risks. What is MCHM? How dangerous is it? Why can we not even wash our clothes in it? Who is responsible? Are my children going to be okay? US Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) called for a full investigation from the Chemical Safety Board, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other agencies. As speculation on social media persisted, I asked myself—would this chemical spill have long-term consequences for the health of local residents or for government policy related to drinking water? Or would we awake on the morning of January 10, 2014, to find that the smell had gone away and be told that the chemical was not toxic and we could safely drink our water again. One interesting part of this case study to me is that there is still so much that is unresolved about this case and also about the long-term safety of drinking water in the United States.

UC Press: After the drinking-water ban was lifted in the affected areas, Governor Tomblin was asked at a press conference, “Should we be drinking the water?” He responded, “It’s your decision. If you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking with this water then use bottled water. I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe. But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use it.” What does the governor’s response say about the larger issues at play here?

Heather Lukacs: How do we as individuals and as a society determine what levels of a contaminant are “safe” for consumption of drinking water? Governor Tomblin’s words are poignant in that he acknowledges that all the experts could not tell the general public that their water was safe. He put the burden of the decision about drinking the water on each individual resident and recognized that there was uncertainty. Federal and state regulations determine the legal levels of many contaminants allowed in drinking water, yet the chemical MCHM was (and is still) not a regulated chemical, so there was no established legal level.

UC Press: How did decide to distill what you learned about the WV chemical spill into a case study?

Heather Lukacs: During the first months after the chemical spill, I taught a version of this case study in a couple of different college classes related to risk perception and environmental ethics. Many of the broader themes resonated with different audiences. In the summer of 2014, I co-developed the written form of the case study with two fellow Stanford PhD students, Nik Sawe (now a Research Associate and Lecturer at Stanford University) and Nicola Ulibarri (now an Assistant Professor at UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology) at a National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) workshop on teaching case studies. The workshop helped us refine our case, and afterward Cynthia Wei from SESYNC encouraged us to submit to Case Studies in the Environment. Ultimately, we wanted to spread the word about the systemic failures that created the conditions for a chemical spill to taint WV’s drinking water. We hoped others would learn from this case and prevent similar failures in the future and in other places.

UC Press: In your work on water-justice issues, you are both a researcher and an environmental practitioner. What benefits are there for practitioners in publishing their work as case studies?

Heather Lukacs: Sharing the on-the-ground work of community-based environmental practice, from the perspective of practitioners, is immensely important. As environmental practitioners, we understand the issues and are connected to affected communities in ways that outside researchers are not. We chose to publish our work in the form of a case study to add to the peer-reviewed literature on environmental policy and resource management in a way that is accessible and easy to digest. The peer review process added legitimacy to our analysis. The ultimate goal of publishing this case study is to highlight challenges and opportunities in the provision of safe drinking water, which is one of my primary motivations.

UC Press: Where are we now with the WV chemical spill? And outside of WV, are there more hopeful developments on the horizon?

Heather Lukacs: This whole process revealed the gaps in our governance system for safe drinking water. There are so many important questions raised by the events in WV: What are our perceptions of risk? How do we define safe water? Who defines safe water? And how are these risks and protections communicated effectively, in an environment where people increasingly mistrust their drinking water? We still have a long way to go as a society to ensure universal access to safe water. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, a deadline recently passed for claimants to join a class-action suit for damages to people and businesses affected by the spill. Where I now work in California, there is a movement to establish drinking-water standards for chemicals not regulated at the national level, such as the pesticide 1,2,3,-Trichloropropane, from agricultural runoff. And for the first time in its history, California now regulates groundwater at the state level through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. That legislation provides local communities with the authority to establish their own groundwater agencies and implement their own regulatory schemes and monitoring. So there are glimmers of hope, but there is still a lot of work to do.

To read Heather Lukacs, Nik Sawe, and Nicola Ulibarri’s case study article on the 2014 West Virginia chemical spill in UC Press’s journal Case Studies in the Environment, visit cse.ucpress.edu or click here: Risk, Uncertainty, and Institutional Failure in the 2014 West Virginia Chemical Spill.

Case Studies in the Environment is a journal of peer-reviewed case-study articles, case-study pedagogy articles, and a repository for editor-reviewed case-study slides. The journal informs faculty, students, educators, professionals, and policymakers on case studies and best practices in the environmental sciences and studies.

A Q&A with Nina Lansbury Hall, winner of the 2017 Case Studies in the Environment Prize Competition

In this post, we speak with Dr. Nina Lansbury Hall. She and a team of researchers have been working with Australia’s Clean Energy Council—the renewable energy sector’s industry group—to investigate what can go wrong (and right) with wind farm development projects. Their article Evaluating Community Engagement and Benefit-Sharing Practices in Australian Wind Farm Development won First Prize in the 2017 Case Studies in the Environment Prize Competition.

Windy Hill Wind Farm, Queensland, Australia. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

UCP: Dr. Nina Hall, you worked with a research team evaluating wind farm development in Australia. Renewable energy sources are broadly popular with the public. Given this support, why have wind farm development initiatives sometimes gone wrong?

NH: We investigated the many ways that companies developing and operating wind farms in Australia engage with local communities. Certainly many factors can influence the way that a community responds to a wind-farm proposal. However, we did find that over the long term, face-to-face communication and relationship-building activities through trusted representatives have a huge impact on the support that communities voice for local projects.

UCP: What concerns do local communities express about wind-farm developments, and how can those concerns be addressed?

NH: We found that understanding each community—each of which is different—was really important. And then it’s important to respond to community concerns in a collaborative way. For example, wind-farm developers can provide the community with a say in how decisions are made, being clear about how the community can influence the design or operation of a development. Also if developers give communities a stake in a project or some kind of ownership—financial or otherwise—such actions are big influencers in resolving concerns about a project. I should note that we saw some fantastic examples where companies had success by being flexible in their approach, taking a big-picture approach, and trying new ways of doing things that were focused on face-to-face communication and relationship building.

UCP: Your research focuses on wind development, but I was struck by the contrast between your formula for successful renewable energy development (context/trust/people/face-to-face interactions/community influence) and the approach that the energy company Corridor Resources took with their secrecy and lack of engagement around an offshore exploration and development project in Canada’s Old Harry Prospect. Beyond renewables, do you think there are lessons for the broader energy-development sector?

NH: Sure. You are likely right in that many lessons from this research could be considered in other large infrastructure developments. In particular, one clear outcome from our research was that a large, visible project does not necessarily mean less community support. The way engagement is carried out and how you work with the local community can have a dramatic impact on local support and should not be overlooked. In our research projects, we saw that engagement that focused on openness, inclusivity, and less secrecy certainly yielded positive results.

The Australian research team included Dr. Nina Lansbury Hall (The University of Queensland), Jarra Hicks (University of New South Wales; Community Power Agency), Taryn Lane (Embark), and Emily Wood (an independent communications contractor). To read their related case-study article in UC Press’s journal Case Studies in the Environment, visit cse.ucpress.edu or click here: Evaluating Community Engagement and Benefit-Sharing Practices in Australian Wind Farm Development.

Case Studies in the Environment is a journal of peer-reviewed case-study articles, case-study pedagogy articles, and a repository for editor-reviewed case-study slides. The journal informs faculty, students, educators, professionals, and policymakers on case studies and best practices in the environmental sciences and studies.

Must-Read Journals for #AHA18

The American Historical Association is convening in Washington, DC for its 132nd annual meeting from January 4-7, 2018. The theme for this year’s conference is “Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in Global Perspective.” UC Press’s history journals are contributing to the conversation by making a selection of content speaking to this theme available for free for a limited time. Please follow the links below and share your comments on social media using #AHA18.

Pacific Historical Review Special Issue:
Alternative Wests: Rethinking Manifest Destiny
Guest Edited by Andrew C. Isenberg

The mid-nineteenth century territorial growth of the United States was complex and contradictory. Not only did Mexico, Britain, and Native Americans contest U.S. territorial objectives; so, too, did many within the United States and in some cases American western settlers themselves. The notion of manifest destiny reflects few of these complexities. Manifest destiny was a partisan idea that emerged in a context of division and uncertainty intended to overawe opponents of expansion. Only in the early twentieth century, as the United States had consolidated its hold on the North American West and was extending its power into the Caribbean and Pacific, did historians begin to describe manifest destiny as something that it never was in the nineteenth century: a consensus. To a significant extent, historians continue to rely on the idea to explain U.S. expansion. This Special Issue argues for returning a sense of context and contingency to the understanding of mid-nineteenth-century U.S. expansion. Read the special issue.


Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences offers the following articles on the #AHA18 theme for you to read for free for a limited time:

Instruments of Science or Conquest: Neocolonialism and Modern American Astronomy
Leandra Swanner

Fellow Travelers and Traveling Fellows: The Intercontinental Shaping of Modern Mathematics in Mid-Twentieth Century Latin America
Michael J. Barany

Darwin and the Ethnologists: Liberal Racialism and the Geological Analogy
Suman Seth

Retouching the Past with Living Things: Indigenous Species, Tradition, and Biological Research in Republican China, 1918-1937
Lijing Jiang

Bred for the Race: Thoroughbred Breeding and Racial Science in the United States, 1900-1940
Brian Terrell

Visualizing ‘Race’ in the Eighteenth Century
Snait B. Missis

Master of the Master Gland: Choh Hao Li, the University of California, and Science, Migration, and Race
Benjamin C. Zulueta


Boom California invites you to read its series of articles on “Undocumented California.”

Undocumented Californians and the Future of the Golden State
Manuel Pastor

Regarding the Documents: Scanning the Mythology of ‘Documented’ California
Jason S. Sexton

California Dreaming? The Integration of Immigrants into American Society
Kevin R. Johnson

The Américas: A Novel of California Begun
David Kipen

On the Road to Opportunity: Racial Disparities in Obtaining an AB 60 Driver Licenses
Laura E. Enriquez, Daisy Vazquez Vera, and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan

California’s Opportunities for Undocumented Students: Are They Enough?
Tanya Golash-Boza and Zulema Valdez

Undocumented Emotional Intelligence: Learning from the Intellectual Investments of California’s Undergraduates
Ana Elizabeth Rosas

Lines and Fences: Writing and Rewriting the California Fence/Wall
Marcel Brousseau


Southern California Quarterly Special Virtual Issue:
Home Strategies: Class, Race, and Empowerment in 20th Century Los Angeles

The Southern California Quarterly, published continuously (under this and earlier titles) since 1884 by the Historical Society of Southern California, has touched repeatedly on the themes of housing development, discrimination, and empowerment. In this virtual issue, we present a sampling of its contributions on these themes. Read the virtual issue.



California History offers the following articles on the #AHA18 theme for you to read for free for a limited time:

Teaching Race in California History Beyond Domination and Diversity
Daniel Martinez HoSang

Victory Abroad, Disaster at Home: Environment, Race, and World War II Shipyard Production
Alistair W. Fortson

Language Education, Race, and the Remaking of American Citizenship in Los Angeles, 1900–1968
Zevi Gutfreund

But Why Glendale? A History of Armenian Immigration to Southern California
Daniel Fittante

Resisting Camelot: Race and Resistance to the San Fernando Valley Secession Movement
Jean-Paul R. deGuzman


The Public Historian Special Virtual Issue:
Monuments, Memory, Politics, and Our Publics

The Public Historian, the official journal of the National Council on Pubic History, shares a special virtual issue featuring dozen essays from the journal’s backlist, ranging across some twenty years, that illustrate the evolving historiography on the issue of monuments, memory, history, and heritage and broaden the discussion beyond the focus of the Civil War, Redemption, and resistance to the expansion of civil rights during the 1960s and 1970s.

5 High-Impact Articles in Earth & Environmental Science and Ecology

Thanks to those at the AGU Fall Meeting that have stopped by booth #1820 to see Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene featured alongside DataOne, DataCite, and Dash. As part of Elementa‘s #AGU17 blog series, today we’re showcasing content from our Earth & Environmental Science and Ecology domains that show high levels of views, downloads, Scopus citations, and Altmetric activity.

In case you missed it, this week we announced that Elementa has been accepted into the Science Citation Index Expanded and is expected to get an Impact Factor in June 2018 (confirmed by Clarivate Analytics). We look forward to seeing Elementa content fully indexed in Web of Science/Science Citation Index Expanded soon (in addition to its current indexing in Scopus), and we are also pleased to see many other metrics of Elementa’s journal- and article-level impact.

For more information about the journal or to submit an article, please visit us at elementascience.org.

Earth & Environmental Science
Editor-in-Chief: Oliver A. Chadwick, University of California, Santa Barbara

5 High-Impact Articles
(All metrics from December 8, 2017. Citation Source: Scopus)

Dating the Anthropocene: Towards an empirical global history of human transformation of the terrestrial biosphere
Ellis EC, Fuller DQ, Kaplan JO, Lutters WG. 2013.
Impact: 32,078 views/downloads, 24 citations, and Altmetric Score 67 since original publication on December 4, 2013

Sources and sinks of carbon in boreal ecosystems of interior Alaska: A review
Douglas TA, Jones MC, Hiemstra CA, Arnold JR. 2014.
Impact: 19,292 views/downloads, 3 citations, and Altmetric Score 2 since original publication on November 7, 2014

Earthcasting the future Critical Zone
Goddéris Y, Brantley SL. 2013.
Impact: 18,379 views/downloads and 6 citations since original publication on December 4, 2013

Water depletion: An improved metric for incorporating seasonal and dry-year water scarcity into water risk assessments
Brauman KA, Richter BD, Postel S, Malsy M, Flörke M. 2016.
Impact: 18,003 views/downloads, 1 citation, and Altmetric Score 106 since original publication on January 20, 2016

Response of stream ecosystem function and structure to sediment metal: Contextdependency and variation among endpoints
Costello DM, Burton GA. 2014.
Impact: 17,401 views/downloads, 6 citations, and Altmetric Score 1 since original publication on August 27, 2014

Editor-in-Chief: Donald R. Zak, University of Michigan

5 High-Impact Articles
(All metrics from December 8, 2017. Citation Source: Scopus)

Warming, soil moisture, and loss of snow increase Bromus tectorum’s population growth rate
Compagnoni A, Adler PB. 2014.
Impact: 24,051 views/downloads, 6 citations and Altmetric Score 1 since original publication on January 8, 2014

Quantifying flooding regime in floodplain forests to guide river restoration
Marks CO, Nislow KH, Magilligan FJ. 2014.
Impact: 21,889 views/downloads, 6 citations, and Altmetric Score 4 since original publication on September 3, 2014

Biotic impoverishment
Naeem S. 2013.
Impact: 20,479 views/downloads, 2 citations, and Altmetric Score 9 since original publication on December 4, 2013

Proactive ecology for the Anthropocene
Chapin III FS, Fernandez E. 2013.
Impact: 18,092 views/downloads, 3 citations, and Altmetric Score 6 since original publication on December 4, 2013

Towards a general theory of biodiversity for the Anthropocene
Cardinale BJ. 2013.
Impact: 18,032 views/downloads, 7 citations, and Altmetric Score 15 since original publication on December 4, 2013


#ResearchRoundup: 8 New Articles from Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene

In this environmental science #ResearchRoundup, we are pleased to highlight 8 new articles—including select articles trending on Altmetric—published across Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene‘s comprehensive, interdisciplinary Knowledge Domains. All Elementa articles are published #OpenAccess, so be sure to visit us at elementascience.org to read more of the latest articles.

Want more information about Elementa? Join Elementa‘s mailing list and follow the journal on Facebook and Twitter for news and updates.

Atmospheric Science

Regional trend analysis of surface ozone observations from monitoring networks in eastern North America, Europe and East Asia
Kai-Lan Chang,  Irina Petropavlovskikh,  Owen R. Cooper,  Martin G. Schultz,  Tao Wang
07 Sept 2017
Special Feature: Tropospheric Ozone Assessment Report (TOAR): Global metrics for climate change, human health and crop/ecosystem research

Earth & Environmental Science

Biogeochemical characterization of municipal compost to support urban agriculture and limit childhood lead exposure from resuspended urban soils
Maia G. Fitzstevens,  Rosalie M. Sharp,  Daniel J. Brabander
11 Sept 2017

Trending article

Evolving deltas: Coevolution with engineered interventions
A. C. Welch,  R. J. Nicholls,  A. N. Lázár
25 Aug 2017
Special Feature: Deltas in the Anthropocene


Ocean Science

Using mineralogy and higher-level taxonomy as indicators of species sensitivity to pH: A case-study of Puget Sound
Shallin Busch,  Paul McElhany
12 Sept 2017
Special Feature: Advances in ocean acidification research

Trending article

Seasonal trends and phenology shifts in sea surface temperature on the North American northeastern continental shelf
Andrew C. Thomas,  Andrew J. Pershing,  Kevin D. Friedland,  Janet A. Nye,  Katherine E. Mills,  Michael A. Alexander,  Nicholas R. Record,  Ryan Weatherbee,  M. Elisabeth Henderson
23 Aug 2017
Special Feature: Climate change impacts: Fish, fisheries and fisheries management

Sustainable Engineering

Shipping and the environment: Smokestack emissions, scrubbers and unregulated oceanic consequences
David R. Turner,  Ida-Maja Hassellöv,  Erik Ytreberg,  Anna Rutgersson
11 Aug 2017
Special Feature: Investigating marine transport processes in the 21st century

Sustainability Transitions

Trending article

Effective inundation of continental United States communities with 21st century sea level rise
12 July 2017
Kristina A. Dahl,  Erika Spanger-Siegfried,  Astrid Caldas,  Shana Udvardy


Building student capacity to lead sustainability transitions in the food system through farm-based authentic research modules in sustainability sciences (FARMS)
Selena Ahmed,  Alexandra Sclafani,  Estephanie Aquino,  Shashwat Kala,  Louise Barias, Jaime Eeg
Forum: New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems

Coasts in Crisis: Plastic on the Shoreline

by Gary Griggs, author of Coasts in Crisis: A Global Challenge

An Earth-changing development took place in New York City in 1907 when plastic was first synthesized. It had all the right stuff for a huge range of uses: lightweight, flexible, strong, moisture resistant, relatively inexpensive, and a quality that has plagued us ever since, durability. This stuff just doesn’t break down or go away very quickly. Throughout the 20th century the development and use of new kinds of plastics and new products and uses proliferated rapidly.

I have spent much of my life studying beaches and coastlines and over 50 years ago I started collecting beach sands from my travels. Each one is unique and I think of them as the DNA or the fingerprint of some particular set of geologic and oceanographic conditions. I now have about 300 or so sand samples stored in glass vials and spread around on windowsills, bookshelves, and in frames, both at home and in my office.

My collection has gotten the attention of a number of friends over the years that now send or bring back beach sand from various far-flung places around the planet. A few years ago, a good friend who travels a lot, usually to coastlines that are often remote and difficult to get to, sent back beach sand samples from the Andaman Islands. This archipelago of 572 islands, many uninhabited, lies in the Indian Ocean, about 350 miles west of Myanmar and about 800 miles east of India.

These islands are not on any of the usual travel paths and are not easy to get to but my friend and his family were able to charter a boat and visit a number of these isolated islands and bring sand home. One of his emails included some beautiful pictures and then the words: “Sadly, although inhabited, and remote, the island was covered with plastic!”

The widespread use and then disposal of plastic as well as other debris has become an issue of global proportions. With the durability of plastic beverage bottles, plastic bags, detergent and food containers, we believe that about 60-80 percent of all marine debris in the ocean is plastic and it’s found on the beaches of every continent and from Iceland to Antarctica, sad but true.

Despite a growing effort to reduce plastic use and consumption, single-use plastic bags and water bottles in particular, globally we produce about 360 million tons of plastic annually, without about one-third of that going into disposable, single use items. Estimates are that about one percent is recycled globally, with most of the rest ending up in landfills, or often transported or blow into coastal waters.

While over a billion people around the world lack access to safe drinking water, they usually aren’t the ones consuming all of the bottled water. Americans, who are almost all fortunate to have very good quality and regularly tested tap water, consumed 9.7 billion gallons of bottled water in 2012. This water was guzzled from 103 billion single-use plastic bottles, or 3,250 bottles emptied every second, all year long. Despite the prevalence of recycling programs and convenient containers for disposal, only about 20% of the bottles are recycled and the rest are discarded, ending up in dumps or in some cases, the ocean or on our beaches.

While cleaning up beaches is helpful and beneficial, the ultimate solution to the problem of plastic proliferation along our shorelines and in the oceans of the world isn’t clean up and removal, but in prevention- cutting off or eliminating the plastic, Styrofoam and other marine debris at the sources. It means taking every action necessary to keep the trash from getting into our rivers, waterways and oceans to begin with.

Gary Griggs is Distinguished Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is author or coauthor of Introduction to California’s Beaches and CoastLiving with the Changing California CoastCalifornia Coast from the Air, The Santa Cruz Coast (Then and Now), and Our Ocean Backyard.

Hurricanes versus Earthquakes: How Natural Disasters Compare between Florida and California

by Gary Griggs, author of Coasts in Crisis: A Global Challenge

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, followed by Jose and Katia next in line, like commuters on the freeway headed for work. What’s going on here? We generally don’t think too much about hurricanes here in California, but it’s hard to miss the news now.

Hurricane Harvey may be the most damaging storm to ever hit the United States. And in terms of wind speed in miles per hour, Irma is reported as being the strongest hurricane ever recorded and it has yet to hit the coast of Florida. Irma is currently leaving a path of complete destruction as it blasts through the Caribbean. On the island of St. Martin, an island split between Dutch and French control, There is no power, no gasoline, no running water. Homes are under water, cars are floating through the streets, and inhabitants are sitting in the dark in ruined houses and cut off from the outside world. These aren’t losses that are going to be repaired or replaced in a few weeks time. It will take months to years to return to normal.

Some residents of the Atlantic coast of the US are often quoted as saying that they would much rather live with hurricanes—where at least you know they’re coming—rather than the uncertainty of earthquakes that we all live with here in California. The truth, however, is that while large earthquakes in the United States present clear dangers, they don’t begin to compare with hurricanes in terms of damage of loss of life. Our average annual death toll from earthquakes in the United States over the past century or so is about 20 per year. If fact, in the entire 240 year history of the United States, there has only been a single earthquake that led to deaths of more than 200 people, and that was the great San Francisco shock of 1906. We just don’t get big earthquakes that often, at least historically, although they will come and we shouldn’t be complacent about them.

Hurricanes, however, have been responsible for more loss of life in the United States than any other natural hazard. While California may get a damaging earthquake every decade or so, we can get multiple hurricanes in a single season, and 2017 is making that abundantly clear.

Over 60 million people along the U.S. Gulf and South Atlantic coasts live in coastal counties that are vulnerable to hurricanes and, like most coastal regions, those populations continue to increase. From 1900 to 2015, there were 631 hurricanes that affected these counties as well as the Caribbean region, or 5.4 per year on average. 245 of these, or about two each year, have been classed as major hurricanes based on damage and death tolls. On average, about 800 fatalities have been recorded yearly, but this likely is an underestimate as reliable information from older hurricanes is often lacking. Losses are unfortunately increasing every year because more people are retiring to warm hurricane-prone areas like Florida, and investment in homes and other development, and their values, are increasing.

Gary Griggs is Distinguished Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is author or coauthor of Introduction to California’s Beaches and CoastLiving with the Changing California CoastCalifornia Coast from the Air, The Santa Cruz Coast (Then and Now), and Our Ocean Backyard.

A Fresh View of Floodplain Ecology and Management

by Jeff Opperman and Peter Moyle, co-authors of Floodplains: Processes and Management for Ecosystem Services

Last week, we saw tragic images of floods across the world, from Houston to Niger to south Asia, with more than 1,300 deaths from floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Floods are among the most costly natural disasters worldwide and the loss of life and property, from Houston to Mumbai, gave a very human face to the impersonal statistics: in recent years, global damages have ranged between $30 and 60 billion and more than 100 million people have been displaced by flooding.

These events are also warnings about a likely future: in a warming world, many regions will experience more frequent and intense flooding.

It is hard to imagine a flood-management system that could have effectively contained the historic amount of rain that fell on southeast Texas—several feet in just a few days. However, even if all floods can’t be contained, governments must still invest in measures to improve safety for people and reduce damages. The key is to move beyond a primary focus on the structural measures—dams and levees—that strive to contain floods, and toward a “diversified portfolio” approach. Nonstructural measures—such as zoning, building codes and insurance—are key to keeping people out of harm’s way. Another critical strategy is to integrate green infrastructure—natural features such as wetlands and floodplains—into flood-management systems.

In river basins around the world, from the Mississippi to the Sacramento to the Rhine, managers have moved away from a strict reliance on engineered levees, which confine rivers and attempt to contain floods. Instead, they have moved towards reconnecting rivers to parts of their historic floodplains. On these reconnected floodplains, floodwaters can spread out and reduce risks to communities and farmland in other areas.

We have documented this trend, and reasons why green infrastructure can be so effective, in our book, Floodplains: Processes and Management for Ecosystem Services.

The book is based on our many years of studying floodplains in California, a leader in using floodplains for flood management. But we also explore other regions, especially Europe, Australia, and Asia, for new insights.

Our focus is reconciliation ecology, the science of integrating functioning ecosystems into landscapes dominated by people. This framework is key to understanding the full potential of green infrastructure: by reducing flood risk, wetlands and floodplains function as infrastructure. But they are also “green”—they are ecosystems that are influenced by complex and intertwined biophysical processes. The first part of our book reviews these processes—encompassing hydrology, geomorphology, biogeochemistry, and ecology—and how they respond to management interventions.

A hallmark of green infrastructure is that these ecosystem processes can provide multiple benefits beyond flood-risk reduction. For floodplains, these benefits include habitat for fish and wildlife, groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration, and open space and recreation. Thus, realizing the full potential of green infrastructure will come from an integrated approach, one in which engineers, scientists and planners collaborate on management to provide multiple benefits. The second part of the book includes a number of case studies of these new management approaches.

To be clear, we are not suggesting that floodplains and wetlands are the answer to reducing current and future flood risk. Rather, we think that a flood-management system that relies on green infrastructure in addition to engineered infrastructure and sound nonstructural policies, will increase safety for people and provide a broad range of other benefits.

The book’s closing paragraph articulates this optimism that integrated management can improve safety for people while promoting a range or natural services:

“Our time spent on rivers and floodplains has certainly shown us that much has changed and been lost over time. But we have seen more than just glimmers of hope in reconciled floodplains that are diverse and productive. We take heart from the huge flocks of migratory white geese and black ibis that congregate annually on California floodplains and from knowing that, beneath the floodwaters, juvenile salmon are swimming, feeding, and growing among cottonwoods and rice stalks, before heading out to sea. We can envision greatly expanded floodplains that are centerpieces of many regions, protecting people but also featuring wildlands, wildlife, and floodplain-friendly agriculture. Connectivity among floodplains, people and wild creatures is within reach, as is a future in which people work with natural processes rather than continually fighting them.”

Jeffrey J. Opperman is the global lead freshwater scientist for WWF and a research associate at the University of California, Davis.

Peter B. Moyle is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology and Associate Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

4S Conference: At the Intersection of Social Studies, Science, and Technology

This year’s Annual Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S)  (August 30 – September 2 in Boston) continues to focus on fostering scholarship in the social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Learn more about books at the forefront of this discussion, from data regulation, to reproductive justice, to people’s overall health and well-being. #4S2017

The Internet

Interpreting the Internet: Feminist and Queer Counterpublics in Latin America by Elisabeth Jay Friedman

“A fascinating and wonderfully insightful account of the internet’s transformative utilization in Latin America. The rigorous sociomaterial analysis that she brings convincingly demonstrates and accounts for the co-constitution of subjects, technology, and broader social contexts and power relations.”—Lincoln Dahlberg, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Queensland

Learn more from Elisabeth Jay Friedman on the regional roots of transnational digital activism.


Chokepoints: Global Private Regulation on the Internet by Natasha Tusikov

“Natasha Tusikov raises important questions about the global governance of online transactions as well as much larger questions about the relationship between public and private law enforcement in our surveillance societies. Chokepoints is a terrific book.”—Roger Brownsword, King’s College London

Learn more from Natasha Tusikov about the new global regulators.



Health and Medicine

Unprepared: Global Health in a Time of Emergency by Andrew Lakoff

“Unprepared shows how, despite considerable epidemiological and biological advances, international agencies and national governments each time face similar issues, dilemmas, controversies, criticisms, and failures. It is an important contribution to the anthropology of contemporary anxieties and uncertainties.”—Didier Fassin, author of When Bodies Remember: Experiences and Politics of AIDS in South Africa



Taking Baby Steps: How Patients and Fertility Clinics Collaborate in Conception by Jody Lyneé Madeira 

“Madeira’s interviews capture the voices of fertility patients as they struggle with decisions about whether to keep trying after repeated failures, how many embryos to implant at time, and whether to experiment with potentially risky procedures.  It adds new depth to our understanding of the concept of “informed consent” and of the human capacity for decision-making in the face of often heart-breaking challenges.”—June Carbone, Robina Chair of Law, Science and Technology, University of Minnesota Law School


Plastic Reason: An Anthropology of Brain Science in Embryogenetic Terms by Tobias Rees

Plastic Reason deftly tracks how the notion of ‘plasticity’ gathered persuasive force among a community of neuroscientists in France. Conducting and composing his ethnography through a series of conversational encounters with brain researchers, Tobias Rees elegantly illustrates how science is made in rhetoric, debate, and practice.”—Stefan Helmreich, Professor of Anthropology, MIT

Learn more from Tobias Rees about plasticity.


All in Your Head: Making Sense of Pediatric Pain by Mara Buchbinder

“Buchbinder tellingly shows how social meanings and social life intersect in creating therapeutic approaches to pain that make it endurable as a clinical reality for patients, families, and clinicians. A serious and useful contribution to medical anthropology, to the field of chronic pain, and to a meaning-centered approach to the art of living.”—Arthur Kleinman, MD, author of The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition

Learn more from Mara Buchbinder about the study of chronic pediatric pain.


And see more titles in Health, Medical Anthropology, and Environmental Sciences.


Who “Owns” Information when Environmental and Corporate Interests Clash?

In this post, Daniel Bourgault, professor and researcher of physical oceanography at Institut des sciences de la mer de Rimouski in Quebec, Canada, talks about the difficulties environmental researchers can run into when commercial interests withhold environmental data.

Professor Bourgault, you recently published the article “Commercially Sensitive” Environmental Data: A Case Study of Oil Seep Claims for the Old Harry Prospect in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada in UC Press’s new journal Case Studies in the Environment. So tell us, is there a big, natural oil seep in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence?

DB: We don’t really know, but it would be surprising that there would be significant amounts of oil naturally seeping out of the seafloor of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Example of oil slicks (these, in the Gulf of Mexico), as seen by satellite. Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory

The Gulf of St. Lawrence has been studied and monitored for many decades by oceanographers, including chemists, geologists, biologists and physicists. If oceanographers had ever found any indications or had serious suspicions of the presence of natural oil in the seawater of the Gulf of St. Lawrence it would certainly have been reported. Yet, there is nothing in the scientific literature that points at any such evidence. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so the possibility cannot be completely ruled out either. The only indications we have are provided by the oil company Corridor Resources who have been stating for about the last 15 years in their publicly available annual reports that they have indications from satellite images that there are six sites around the Old Harry prospect that would naturally and permanently seep oil. Under some circumstances, satellite images may indeed reveal the presence of oil at the sea surface. Think for example of large incidents such as the Deep Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico where surface oil slicks could easily be detected from space. In some cases, the oil detected from satellite images could also come from natural seafloor seeps if the oil is light enough to float all the way to the sea surface and if the amount released is large enough to be detected by satellite images. However, while this information might be credible, it cannot be independently verified since the satellite data and analyses that Corridor Resources hold are kept secret in the name of “commercial sensitivity”. Unambiguously identifying oil seeps from satellite images is not a trivial task by itself. Plus, determining the source of the seeps and whether the source is natural or not is really difficult and can rarely be done with satellite images only. So we are puzzled as to how Corridor Resources could have concluded that there were six oil seeps around the Old Harry prospect based only on an analysis of satellite images.

What does it mean when data is “commercially sensitive?”

DB: The specific meaning of this expression varies from state to state, and it depends on how it is defined in laws and case law. But in general, it means that the industry, or government, considers that publicly disclosing the information may result in a material loss to, or a prejudice to its competitive position. Basically, it implies that the potential harm resulting from the disclosure outweighs the public interest in making the disclosure. In our case study, it’s not clear to us why the information is judged to be commercially sensitive by Corridor Resources or Airbus Defence and Space (i.e. the consultant who actually carried out the analyses and provided the data). What appears to us to be paradoxical is that Corridor Resources publicly discloses the main conclusion of their private study, i.e. that they have apparently found evidence that there are six persistent oil seep sites around the Old Harry prospect (they’ve even presented a map of the location of those six seeps), but can decline to – and indeed cannot be forced to – present the data and analyses that support this conclusion. We wonder what material loss or prejudice could result from presenting the data and the method that the conclusions wouldn’t already? One possibility could be that Corridor may lose potential investments and take a hit on their share value if the conclusion is demonstrated as false or weak.

From an environmental point of view, the information about whether or not the Gulf of St. Lawrence naturally seeps oil is fundamental to know. Such information is needed in order to construct a reliable baseline initial state against which any new man-made oil contribution resulting from eventual oil and gas development could be compared with, and impacts on the marine environment, ecosystem, and people be then truly assessed.

In this context, we propose that it might appear sensible to label some information as “socially sensitive” or “environmentally sensitive” to balance the existing “commercially sensitive” information.

What is the most surprising thing you found when communicating with Corridor Resources or with Airbus Defence and Space in order to gain access to the data behind their claims about Old Harry prospect?

DB: How long it took to obtain answers! The questions we initially asked were simple and straightforward and could really have been answered in a week or so. Yet, the process took 9 months, from 20 July 2015 until 26 April 2016.

For example, here’s an excerpt of the first email I sent to Corridor Resources:

20 July 2015

I recently came across a document published by Corridor in 2011 that tells that evidence were found from satellite images of oil seeps emanating from the flanks of Old Harry.

Corridor’s annual reports also tells that six such seeps had been detected. For example, we can read in the 2000 annual report that: “Six natural oil seeps have been detected on the ocean surface by satellite, emanating from the flanks of this prospect.” I find this information very interesting and very relevant and I’d like to learn more. Could you please send me more information? Could you please send me the satellites images that were analyzed as well as a report that tells how these images were analyzed and interpreted? That would be greatly appreciated.


Daniel Bourgault

I then had to send two reminders to finally receive a first response on September 2, 43 days later. I received a short response telling me that the data were proprietary information and that Corridor Resources was not at liberty to distribute them.

I immediately acknowledge the receipt and asked a few more questions on September 2. Again, I had to wait another 40 days to get a response (on October 12). It has been like this for 9 months.

But again, as I mentioned above, what I find most surprising is that Corridor Resources is at the liberty to publicly share the conclusion of the analyses but not the data or the method.

Does the public have a right to access environmental data?

DB: In general, at least in Canada and in the US, a lot of environmental data are publicly available. For example, the St. Lawrence Global Observatory (https://ogsl.ca/en) portal offers to anyone a lot of basic environmental data for the Gulf of St. Lawrence such as air temperature, wind conditions, sea temperature, salinity, currents, dissolved oxygen, sea level and much more. Some satellite images are also publicly and freely available from the US or Europe. However, some very specialized data sets and analyses are not always publicly available, especially when those data are owned by the private sector. For example, the oil seeps detection analyses carried out by Airbus Defence and Space for Corridor Resources on specialized satellite images are not publicly available.

In our paper, we introduce the idea that under some special circumstances of public interest, the public should have the right to access specialized environmental data in the name of an alternative concept we could call “socially sensitive” or “environmentally sensitive information or data.” This could balance the rights of the public to know and the right of the industry to secrecy. At the moment, the laws and regulations usually give precedence to the right to secrecy, but the balance sheet of the industry is not the only thing we should protect.


Case Studies in the Environment is a journal of peer-reviewed case study articles, case study pedagogy articles, and a repository for editor-reviewed case study slides. The journal aims to inform faculty, students, educators, professionals, and policymakers on case studies and best practices in the environmental sciences and studies.

Through December 31, 2017, all Case Studies in the Environment content is available free. To learn more about the journal, please visit cse.ucpress.edu.