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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2013

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Letter to the Editor: Setting Water Quality Standards and Postnormal Science

In the editorial by Tim O'Riordan accompanying our article “Water Quality Standards, A Scientific and Theological–Ethical Analysis” (November–December 2012), he says early on: “Kolmes and Buktus offer an incomplete story on a process of standard setting for healthy fish eaters in a river system potentially contaminable by various toxic agricultural and industrial emissions.” He goes on to discuss the important 1998 analysis of setting environmental standards and their relationship to public values by the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

Professor O'Riordan is of course correct: The 5,000 word limit on any article circumscribes the content that can be included, and we will take a moment here to enrich this conversation by introducing material on postnormal science that was self-edited out of our publication to meet space requirements. In our initial version, we wrote:

The process used in Oregon to review water quality standards was complicated and involved numerous groups. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ), Oregon's State Agency charged with this task, convened two committees. The first, the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), was composed of scientists from State and Federal Agencies and from academic institutions.1 The second, the Policy Advisory Committee (PAC), was composed of ‘external stakeholders’ and a group of nonvoting agency advisors2. The stakeholders, identified in the preceding footnote, ranged from environmentalists to representatives of different industries to ranchers and farmers to a Tribal representative. The concept was broadly based participation in reviewing the TAC recommendations, in a process that was not articulated in that fashion at the time but that has been described in the literature as postnormal science.3 If postnormal science intends to bridge environmental science, environmental policy, and complex systems, in a setting with considerable uncertainty and social stakes, this might have been a good group to convene. In the process as it played out, it was not.

The 1998 report of the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution [1998], On Setting Environmental Standards, RCEP, London), which included focus groups, citizen's juries, consensus conferences, and deliberative polls, was consistent with the broadly deliberative approach expounded by the proponents of postnormal science that we cite in the preceding and in note 3. While the Royal Commission was, after four decades, sadly abolished in 2011, the movement for postnormal science, which includes calls for the precautionary principle and broadly inclusive deliberation, continues.

Space limitations again prevent us from delving into a more extensive exploration of this topic. For some more recent citations from postnormal science and a discussion of its potential relationship to theological ethics, you might consult chapter 2 of our book Environmental Science & Theology in Dialogue (Orbis Press, Maryknoll, NY, 2011). The Royal Commission may have fallen prey to a call for “efficiency” but the intellectual movement towards inclusive deliberation continues.

An important point to reiterate is O'Riordan's concern about the fate of such deliberations in the face of countervailing forces including economic contractions, calls for increased government efficiency, and an emphasis on increasing economic growth. As he notes, these have the potential in the future to further disadvantage the already marginalized. What is at stake, as O'Riordan says, is really whether those already often ignored will be heard in the future or not.

1. Ken Kauffman, Reg. Sanitarian, Oregon Department of Human Services; Rick Johnson, PhD, Oregon Graduate Institute; Joan Rothlein, PhD, Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology, Oregon Health and Science University; Jeff Jenkins, PhD, Oregon State University; Deke Gundersen, PhD, Pacific University; Jennifer Orme Zavaleta, MS, U.S. EPA; Steven Kolmes, PhD, University of Portland; Gene Foster, PhD, Oregon DEQ; Martin Fitzpatrick, PhD, Chair, Oregon DEQ. See Table 1.1, page H-6, Toxic Compounds Criteria 1999–2003 Water Quality Standards Review issue paper prepared by Martin S. Fitzpatrick, ODEQ, available at

2. PAC members: Pat Amadeo, chair, unaffiliated; Nina Bell, Northwest Environmental Advocates; Sharon Beck, Oregon Cattlemen's Association; Bill Gaffi/Charles Logue, Association of Clean Water Agencies; Sherri Groh, Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indian Reservation; Chris Jarmer, Oregon Forest Industries Council; John Ledger, Associated Oregon Industries; Karen Lewotsky, Oregon Environmental Council; Peter Ruffier, League of Oregon Cities; Aubrey Russell, Oregon Trout; Glen Spain, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations; Pete Test/Jean Wilkenson, Oregon Farm Bureau; Kathryn VanNatta, Northwest Pulp and Paper Association. PAC Agency Advisors: Dru Keenan, U.S. EPA; Rick Kepler, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife; David Leland, Oregon Health Services; Robert Anderson, National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA-Fisheries; Elizabeth Materna, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. See Table 1.2, page H-7, Toxic Compounds Criteria 1999–s2003 Water Quality Standards Review issue paper prepared by Martin S. Fitzpatrick, ODEQ, available at

3. S. O. Funtowicz and J. R. Ravetz, “Three Types of Risk Assessment and the Emergence of Post-Normal Science,” in S. Krimsky and D. Golding, eds., Social Theories of Risk (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), pp. 251–273; S. O. Funtowicz and J. R. Ravetz, “Science for the Post-Normal Age,” Futures 25, no. 7 (1993): 739–755.

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