UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Knowledge politics in Environmental Impact Assessment Barnard-Chumik, Hannah


Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) faces significant criticism with respect to its scientific approach and oft disjointed legislation. Although appeals for more rigorous science and legally binding obligations for decision-makers are warranted, it is also crucial to acknowledge that regulatory science is situated in specific social, institutional, and political contexts. Therefore, in addition to science and legislation, relevant social processes influence the way in which knowledge is gathered, legitimized, and interpreted, thus affecting regulatory decisions. However, there remains an important empirical gap in understanding how these processes affect knowledge construction in an EIA context. In Chapter 2 of this thesis, I use Situated Analysis to explore the knowledge politics around methylmercury contamination that emerged throughout the EIA of the controversial Muskrat Falls portion of the Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Generation Project, situated in Labrador, Canada. I focus on debates about knowledge related to downstream methylmercury impacts, human health, and mitigation measures to reduce the production of and exposure to methylmercury. I find that there are distinct knowledge orders that interact and collide, generating knowledge conflicts about framing of the policy problem, norms of knowledge construction, and reasoning about the policy problem. Using illustrative examples from the Muskrat Falls case study, this work highlights and categorizes knowledge conflicts that may emerge over the course of a controversial environmental regulatory decision. I also argue that power intersects with EIA in a way that privileges some knowledge orders over others. Privileged knowledge orders are often aligned with particular conceptualizations of human health, the environment, and natural resources. In Chapter 3, I propose an educational activity based on the Muskrat Falls case study that enables post-secondary students to explore how Structured Decision-Making (SDM), a framework for environmental policy decisions that emphasizes objectives and values, may address knowledge conflicts and competing knowledge orders in an EIA context. More broadly, my findings echo calls for a more pluralistic approach to EIA that acknowledges existing power structures in the regulatory context. I also discuss the implications of these findings for the next iterations of EIA legislation and policy.

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