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Beliefs, Values, and Technical Assessment in Environmental Management: Contaminated Sediments in Puget Sound

Jan 1, 2003


Principles of risk assessment and risk management are rapidly making their way into environmental policy making. Yet risk assessment has proved problematic in use, since focusing on risks can serve to highlight uncertainties in scientific information or to delineate the differences between risk assessment as a technical procedure and the cultural, social, and institutional dimensions of risk that people also expect to influence risk management decisions. This article examines the use of principles of risk assessment in Washington State’s development of management standards for contaminated sediments in Puget Sound. It asks whether and how the use of a mixed quantitative-qualitative hazard assessment approach for contaminated-site ranking, coupled with a strategy of separating technical assessment from consideration of social and economic factors in management decisions on a site-by-site basis, helped foster accord on the management approach selected by the Washington Department of Ecology. The Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) was utilized in the design and analysis of a survey of policy elites that serves as the principal data collection vehicle for this study. ACF attempts to understand the dynamics of policy formation through examination of the beliefs that opposing advocacy coalitions bring to policy disputes, focusing on whether cross-coalition learning occurs in analytical debate over policy. Results show that distinct pro-environment and pro-development advocacy coalitions exist for Puget Sound’s contaminated sediments problem. Relatively little disagreement exists across contending coalitions on the ways principles of risk assessment should be applied in ranking contaminated sites for remedial attention, however, suggesting that risk-based management is an area in which cross-coalition learning has occurred. On the other hand, considerable disagreement exists at the policy level, over both the extent to which consideration of risk should drive decision and the extent to which legal liability should be used to force remedial action. Nevertheless, these diverse actors have proved willing to accept the Department of Ecology’s overall approach, suggesting that framing the problem in the language of risk and separating scientific and technical judgments from sociopolitical considerations has had value in moving potential conflict into a realm where a consensus approach can prevail. Difficult political and economic choices remain for the region as the state’s sediment management policy continues to evolve. Agreeing to allow major decision points to be framed as problems in risk reduction through parallel but separate processes of risk assessment and risk management has seemingly added resilience to the policy regime developed through the state’s rule-making process. ACF emerges in this study as a robust framework for examining the impact of scientific and technical assessment on environmental policy development.


Thomas Leschine, Kent Lind, and Rishi Sharma


Leschine, T.M., K.A. Lind, and R. Sharma. 2003. Beliefs, values, and technical assessment in environmental management: contaminated sediments in Puget Sound. Coastal Management 31(1):1-24. Online at



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Journal Article