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Making Decisions About Hazardous Waste Cleanup

Duration 3 1/4 class periods
Grade Level 9-12
Key Terms/
Hazardous waste
Potentially Responsible Party

Life Science
Physical Science
Social Studies


scaleThis activity lets students assume roles and act out a situation that illustrates the process of decision making related to cleaning up a Superfund site. Students identify the participants in the Superfund decision making process, make judgments about the potential effect of site cleanup on the characters they portray, and learn that different people have different perspectives on the same cleanup issues. In addition, they practice writing statements, formulating questions, and articulating their views in a public meeting setting.


Whether we are children or adults, our lives are influenced by a constant series of choices. Some choices we make for ourselves. Some are made by parents for their children, and many are made by people we don't even know. The combination of all these choices determines the quality of each of our lives. Making these choices is not easy because sometimes what one person perceives as the right choice for him or her as an individual may be perceived as the wrong choice for the neighborhood, community, or country.

For example, people living near an abandoned hazardous waste site may want the site cleaned up as fast as possible, no matter what the cost, because they fear for their own, as well as their children's, safety. On the other hand, people employed by a company that caused the contamination at the site (a Potentially Responsible Party) or the local government may favor alternatives that, while effective, take longer and cost less. They are concerned about the impact on jobs and the local economy if the government requires the company to pay too much for the cleanup.

The process of making decisions about Superfund site cleanup involves weighing and balancing a variety of technical and nontechnical factors, including the sometimes competing interests in the community. This activity provides a lesson about Federal policy-making that extends well beyond the Superfund Program.

To help prepare your students for this activity, use Warm-Up 5: Hazardous Waste Issues in the News. You may perform the entire Warm-Up or simply review the main points covered in it. As a follow-up, have your students perform Activity 11: What the Community Can Do.

For additional information on these topics, see the Suggested Reading list found at the end of the Haz-Ed materials. Other Haz-Ed materials that are related to this topic include Fact Flash 8: Common Cleanup Methods and Fact Flash 10: Superfund Community Involvement Program.


  1. Gather the following materials:


Class #1

  1. Explain to students that in two successive follow-up sessions the class will act out a situation that illustrates the sometimes difficult process of making decisions about Superfund site cleanup. For this role-playing exercise, students will assume they live in the hypothetical area of the Flowing Railroad Superfund site. They will participate in a community meeting held to discuss and air community views about the site cleanup options under consideration.

  2. Divide the class into nine teams. Explain that each team will represent one of the "players" in this drama: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Remedial Project Manager (RPM), EPA's Community Involvement Coordinator (CIC), a local Health Department official, the Mayor of Ruralville, the attorney forFRR Enterprises, a local environmental activist, a person employed at Flow Automations, Inc., a local farmer, and a local carpenter.

    NOTE: If you live in a community near a real Superfund site, you may choose to prepare Student Handouts using information about that site so the role-play will be more realistic for your students. Call the Community Involvement Coordinator in your state. Phone numbers are provided at the end of the Haz-Ed materials.

  3. Assign a role to each team and explain that later each team will have to choose 1 team member to be the actor when the first part of the drama is played out at the next class. Team members should prepare a written statement for their character to deliver, as well as a list of questions the character may want to ask at the meeting.

  4. Distribute the Student Handout, Analysis of alternatives for Cleaning Up Flowing River Site. Give each team the Character Background Sheet that is appropriate for its assigned role. NOTE: If you live in a community near a Superfund site, you may choose to adjust the roles and the background information for each to approximate the makeup and situation in your community.

  5. Distribute Fact Flashes 2 and 4. Explain to students that these Fact Flashes can be used as background information.

  6. Explain that the information on these handouts can be used to develop their character's beliefs, attitudes, and point of view about the cleanup. Stress that this should go beyond what the character knows or has heard and should include identifying questions the character wants to ask about the cleanup. Encourage students to talk to their parents, local city or town government officials, business owners, and others to help develop their perspectives. Also remind students that some of their characters-EPA's RPM and CIC, the Mayor, and the official from the local Health Department, and possibly others-would probably consult with each other in real life to prepare for the meeting. Encourage teams responsible for these characters to do so.

  7. Specify a specific date for the next class, allowing several days for preparation.

Class #2

  1. For the role-play activity, have the students representing the Mayor and the CIC arrange desks or a table at the front of the room with chairs to accommodate 4 people, the Mayor, EPA's CIC, RPM, and the moderator/facilitator. Place a lectern, desk, or small table somewhere else in the room from which the other characters will make their statements.
  2. NOTE: You may wish to assume the role of moderator/facilitator yourself or you can select a student to do so. The moderator/facilitator's only responsibilities are to maintain order, see that everyone has an opportunity to speak, direct questions to the appropriate person to answer, and see that people speak in turn rather than all at once.

  3. At the conclusion of the meeting, explain to the students that the teams playing EPA's RPM and CIC will get together and consider the information presented in this meeting, make a decision, and present a Proposed Cleanup Plan at the next class (specify the date, allowing sufficient time for the RPM team to meet and prepare a plan). Students from the other teams will have an opportunity to discuss the decision among themselves and comment on it.

  4. Have the Mayor speak first to welcome people to the meeting, then EPA's CIC. After that, have others (the assigned characters) raise their hands to be recognized as they would in a real meeting and call on them in turn. After all participants have made their initial statements, the various characters may be recognized to ask follow-up questions or make additional observations as often as time permits.

Class #3

  1. Have the spokesperson for the RPM team present the team's Proposed Cleanup Plan, including the rationale for choosing the selected remedy. Allow no more than 10 minutes for this presentation.

  2. Give students about 10 minutes to discuss the decision with their team members. Offer the teams an opportunity to comment on the decision. Is the decision clear? Do they agree with it? Why or why not? Do they understand the RPM team's rationale in making the decision?

  3. After teams have made comments from the perspective of their characters, invite the class as a whole to discuss the role-play and the decisionmaking process illustrated. What were the various points of view expressed in the meeting? Which were similar? Which were different (competing)? Which would you have expected to carry more weight? Why? Did those points of view appear to influence the final decision? How do you think the decision will affect the quality of life in the community? Now that the decision has been made, do you think all the characters in this drama will accept it? Why or why not? What options do they have if they do not accept it? (NOTE: An Instructor Fact Sheet, Highlights about Roles, is included in this lesson to help you ensure that the perspectives of all characters in the role-play are covered during the discussion.)

Extension (Optional)

  • Have students bring in examples throughout the year, from newspaper or local television news, of real Superfund cleanup or hazardous waste prevention decisions made by your local government or a major local business. Set aside time periodically to discuss the choices involved in these decisions and their impact on the quality of life in the community. Warm-Up 5: Hazardous Waste Issues in the News contains sample articles of the type students may find.

Instructor Fact Sheet - Highlights about Roles

NOTE: You may need to begin the discussion by identifying 1 or 2 of the actors' perspectives; try to make sure that perspectives of all the characters are covered during this discussion, encouraging the participants to identify as many as possible. You may want to write students' responses on the blackboard, or on a flip chart if you have one, to illustrate the range of perspectives presented and reinforce the idea that the decisionmaking process involves weighing and balancing many different, and sometimes competing, points of view.

  • The RPM wants to learn more about the citizens' concerns so s/he knows what they are and how they can be addressed by the cleanup of the site and reflected in various written reports and other methods (e.g., fact sheets).

  • The CIC also wants to learn more about the community's concerns, so s/he can begin identifying the kinds of information the community is seeking and ways it can be provided to them.

  • The local health official wants more information about potential health hazards the community will be exposed to; the health official also sees this as an opportunity to increase his/her standing in the community.

  • The Mayor of Ruralville has multiple perspectives. The mayor is concerned about the Human Health & Ecological Risk of the citizens and wants answers to questions. The mayor is also concerned about Ruralville's economic growth; its ability to attract future business; the danger of losing a major employer if FRR Enterprises goes bankrupt as a result of paying for cleaning up the site; and his/ her own reelection.

  • The attorney for FRR Enterprises wants to protect his/her client's interests. If FRR Enterprises is being damaged financially due to incorrect or overly cautious studies, or is being asked to conduct site activities that go beyond reasonable measures for cleaning up the site, the attorney wants to know this so s/he can take action on behalf of the company.

  • The local environmental activist is genuinely concerned about improving the environment and asks some very informed and appropriate questions in search for more information.

  • The plant worker is worried about job security, as well as his/her family's Human Health & Ecological Risk.

  • The farmer depends on the water from the Flowing River to irrigate the farm. The publicity surrounding this situation has already caused customers to be alarmed. The farmer wants to know exactly how serious this situation really is and how s/he can protect his/her farmland and economic future.

  • The carpenter is concerned that the needs of poor people in the community won't be considered as decisions about the site are being made.

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