Toxic waste, leaky containers, and an American dream: A symmetrical analysis of agency in the toxic history of an industrial city
Hilleren, Wendy Ruth
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The purpose of this research was to expand on the toxic history of Chester, Pennsylvania. This research focused on an existing body of literature regarding the owner of a rubber recycling plant turned toxic waste dump, a myriad of other individuals and organizations that produced and transported the waste which ended up on the site, a group of Chester residents who banned together to fight discrimination, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and it's then-secretary James M. Seif. The existing literature about this dump delivered a thorough narrative of the individuals involved. However, it was also lacking in that it did not provide a narrative of the nonhuman actors involved. In order to expand on the existing literature, Actor-Network Theory was employed by way of analyzing both human and non-human actors. The theoretical framework served to: (1) create a symmetrical narrative of both human (Melvin Wade, chemical-producing corporations, ABM Disposal Service Inc, CRCQL, James M. Seif, PADEP) and non-human (toxic waste, waste-storage barrels, the plot of land at 1 Flower Street, the Delaware River) actors; (2) demonstrate that the non-human actors functioned within this network by prescribing action of human actors and acting as lieutenants; (3) demonstrate that human actors functioned within this network by subscribing to the actions of non-human actors and allowing sociologism to occur. The application of Actor-Network Theory shows that the dump, the waste, the barrels, the river, the permits, the fire, and the health hazards were not simply external, dormant objects. It was not just a coincidence that a vacant lot near the end of a road that lead into the Delaware River was the locale for this incident. Rather, these objects are part-and-parcel to the network chain of Chester's toxic history. Similarly, it may or may not be coincidence that James M. Seif allowed numerous waste-burning facilities in one of Delaware's most minority-populated counties, but the permits acted as a means to allow this county more health hazards. Those hazards, in turn, helped to organize a group of concerned citizens who, ultimately, set new precedence in court. Objects are not simply bystanders in processes, but have potential to become actors by mediating human behavior within network chains.