Risk Assessment

About this Course

Learn about risk assessment by living it. In this class, the instructor and students will work together to write a comment letter, petition, white paper and/or FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request. Recent class projects include a NEPA comment letter, asking the Colorado Department of Transportation to quantify the increased risk of asthma, heart disease and lung cancer from elevated air pollution faced by those living immediately adjacent (within 400 m) of the proposed rerouting of I-70 East in Denver, a petition to have mercury listed as a criteria air pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and a white paper that placed a dollar value on the ecological impacts of groundwater contamination from coal fly ash impoundments and landfills. There will be different projects each year.    The students in the class will complete a series of assignments pertaining to this comment letter, petition, white paper or FOIA request. Roughly half of the class time is devoted to this project. The other half of the class time entails developing an overarching framework for risk assessment, illustrated when possible using the facts from the class project.  The risk assessment framework falls roughly under four headings. First, we spend several weeks reading and critiquing, just as a scientist would, several key scientific papers pertaining to the class project. To provide structure for this exercise, the students apply the facts in these scientific papers to the conceptual ideas in Science for Business, Law and Journalism, coauthored by the instructor. Our goal in this exercise is not just to understand the assumptions and reasoning of the science underlying our project, but also to learn methods of evaluating and critiquing scientific information more generally. Second, we spend several classes undertaking a risk assessment primer. This includes a simple discussion of very tiny numbers (i.e. parts per million), key concepts (e.g. risk, uncertainity, Red Book risk assessment paradigm), and the leading risk assessment cases. Third, it turns out that unschooled human intuition is not very good at assessing risk. We explore the scientific literature showing that there is a critical distinction between perceived and actual risk, and we apply these results to risk communication and management. Fourth, we undertake a broad comparative analysis of social institutions for managing risk. This discussion is also closely tied to our projects; in recent years, this has entailed discussion of mercury regulation under the Clean Air Act, including recent litigation. We compare the command-and-control regulatory approach to tort law, cost-benefit analyses, economic markets, and even insurance, all being examples of institutions that society has developed to control or reduce risk. We ask how each institution operates, and also its comparative strengths and limitations.

Course number





Environmental Law