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Voices of Water: Gregory Button

Alexandra Cousteau interviews Gregory Button, disaster expert and anthropologist

20100922 TN 1935 AS

© Blue Legacy/Ali Sanderson

On Tuesday I interviewed Gregory Button at his house along the North edge of Knoxville, Tennessee. Dr. Button is the Director of the program in Disasters, Displacement and Human Rights and co-director of the center for the study of social justice at University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

As someone who has studied the Exxon Valdez at length, as well as other disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the TVA coal ash spill and now the BP disaster, Button provided us with a new and valuable perspective on these events, as you can see from our interview. 

Dr. Button can you explain to me why in the aftermath of a disaster like the TVA ash spill the general public still doesn’t know how bad the accident was and the long term health risks that they have been exposed to?

I think we need to recognize that in the wake of any disaster such as this there is a lot of scientific uncertainty that is difficult to sort out and know about in the short term.

That said there’s also the problem that in many cases I think a lot of information is withheld from the public and the public is not able to assess what the risks are for themselves and make decisions that affect their livelihood, their income, their way of life.

What lessons can history teach us about these disasters? 

In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill the Alaska State Commission in their final report explicitly stated that one of the lessons learned from the event was that this nation should never allow a polluter to be in charge of an oil spill again. And yet ironically, as we all know, BP was not only put in charge of the oil spill but probably had more control over the scientific research surrounding the spill than Exxon did 20 years ago.

What can we take away from history repeating itself in such a deleterious manner? 

Within disaster research we have a saying that we often say in the wake of a disaster: First there’s the disaster, and then there is THE disaster.

The first disaster is the triggering event. The second disaster is why we’ve failed to learn from the lessons we’ve learned from the past and why we allow the polluter to be in charge of the spill when actually by placing them in charge they can produce much more long term harm than if that clean up were in the hands of the general public or in a third party.

How should we assess the cost benefit analysis of producing energy with clean coal while still cutting corners the way the TVA did with this? 

I think it’s short sighted to talk in terms of the cost benefit analysis. You certainly could never go to a store and by an otter no more than you could buy a way of life or a lifestyle. These are irreplaceable.  Even if a community is compensated in some way in the long term by the polluter it certainly doesn’t allow them to recreate the community or the lifestyle that was destroyed by a disaster and that’s something we fail too often to recognize.