Challenges to commercial use of bioremediation technologies

As this chapter has shown, bioremediation offers the possibility of technically effective and relatively less expensive remediation. Assuming that the promise of bioremediation strategies are realised, why would anyone object to using these natural treatments? A failure to anticipate issues that can derail plans to deploy any technology, including bioremediation, can be problematic (Axlerod, 1994). While some issues may revolve around the technical aspects of bioremediation, others may derive from nontechnical, social concerns. Site-specific bioremediation decision making can be viewed as a social process that is informed by scientific and technical data, rather than as a physical process. While it is not asserted that bioremediation represents a controversial technology, the use of a simple clean-up option may become controversial (Priest, 1994). Bioremediation encompasses a suite of potential remediation options whose remediation targets, mechanisms and capabilities differ. Therefore, generic questions about the suitability of bioremediation have limited applicability to the particular situations in which it might be considered for deployment. Yet, neither is every possible permutation of contaminant, site, remediation mechanism and remediation goal likely to produce a unique social response. The approach probably lies somewhere in the middle - an exploration of the generic factors that may influence patterns of social responses to specific bioremediation applications (Hagedorn and Allender-Hagedorn, 1997).

To date, there have been relatively few systematic studies of social responses to bioremediation. However, a recent study (Conroy and Ball, unpublished data) suggests that a lack of education in terms of understanding the biological basis of the technology remains a barrier. Therefore, despite increasing applications of bioremediation, social issues related to its deployment have not been documented. While bioremediation may prove to be socially acceptable for cleaning up contamination, it may not be fully acceptable either across the suite of approaches it encompasses or across the range of sites at which it is proposed for deployment (Stern and Dietz, 1994; Davison et al., 1997). Further, the acceptability of this technology should be viewed as multidimensional instead of one-dimensional (e.g. as only as a matter of risk, or risk communication, or education). Acceptability evolves over time through interactions with individuals and organisations, and in response to new technical and non-technical information (Eagly and Kulsea, 1997). Without systematic data, complete analysis of the social dimensions of bioremediation cannot be undertaken. Instead, a systematic approach to identifying and analysing the social determinants of the acceptability of bioremediation can be made. This approach relies on a conceptual framework and draws from published literature to illustrate the attributes of bioremediation and its use.

Although the technology is based on natural processes and does not involve the use of genetically modified organisms, public concerns are centred on the apparent “lack of activity on site” which leads to a public perception that no real “effective treatment” is being applied to the site. To gain a better understanding of social acceptability issues and to improve the ability to predict outcomes in deliberations over the social acceptability of controversial technologies, Wolfe and Bjornstad (2002) developed a conceptual framework for organising what was perceived to be the most important issues. The resulting framework, PACT (Public Acceptability of Controversial Technologies), provides a common logic through which to view site-specific decision making about


remediation technologies (Figure 8.5). The PACT is built around dimensions that operate to influence decision-oriented dialogs over controversial remediation technologies in any location.

Figure 8.5. Overview of public acceptability of controversial technologies (PACT), used to assist in site-specific decision making about remediation technologies

Source: Wolfe, A.K. and D.J. Bjornstad (2002), “Why would anyone object? An exploration of social aspects of phytoremediation acceptability”, Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, Vol. 21, No. 5, pp. 429-438.

The factors relevant to specific decision settings and technologies varies from situation to situation. This PACT-based analysis focuses on an array of attributes that could strongly influence acceptability. In this context, acceptability refers to participants’ willingness to consider the technology in question as a viable alternative, rather than to whether the technology ultimately is deployed. The PACT provides a framework through which to see how participants’ position changes over time, from absolute positions of support or opposition at one extreme to completely negotiable positions at the other. Changes in positions may be related to any of the PACT’s dimensions - from decisions about who should or should not participate in decision making to the kinds of technologies worth considering.

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