Poisoned Water

Documentary – Poisoned Water: What exactly went wrong in Flint—and what does it mean for the rest of the country?    Airing on PBS 31 May 2017, 7-9pm

What’s all this about the EPA?

Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg were both in occupied Copenhagen in 1941.  They met to discuss each other’s work in physics.  It has been reported that Bohr told Heisenberg that you can have clarity or you can have accuracy, but you cannot have both.  In Science and Technology Studies, we like to upstage the physicists by supplying neither.   So here goes, with apologies to Professor Stephen A. Erickson for that last joke.

The Environmental  Protection Agency was created by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1970.  The creation of the EPA was in response to the pollution crisis at that time, such as Cuyahoga River, which was so polluted that it caught fire in 1969.  Yes, the river caught fire and this was not the first time either.  So, two things the EPA has responsible for are clean water and clean air.  It would seem that everyone would want clean air and water, but why then are so many Republican lawmakers critics of the EPA?  Let’s start with breathing air.

I think most of us can agree that breathing clean air is nice, if not a natural right in terms of a clean natural environment to live and in terms of Locke and Jefferson’s ideas about natural born rights of all citizens for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   The EPA is charged with monitoring air quality enforcing the laws passed by Congress.  But, let’s look at the case of monitoring air outside of large chemical plants in Louisiana done by Gwen Ottinger.  The chemical plants tend to release air born toxins in quick bursts.  The concentrations are short lived and are usually noticed by all the people living around the plants.  They loose their breath and their eyes start to water.  If you were the EPA, that is when you want to test the air, but that is not when the EPA tests the air.  The EPA gathers data over a 24 hour period and then averages the data over that time.  A very large quick release violating regulations can become perfectly legal averaged over 24 hours.  It almost seems that the monitoring methods of the EPA were created by the chemical industry.  What about water?

We have to start with Flint Michigan.  They were basically lead poisoned by their municipal government.  Many studies of drinking water have shown that it is not a question of “if” we are lead poisoned in the USA, but only how much.  How is water tested?  Research by Yanna Lambrinidou suggests that the EPA does the exact opposite of air monitoring for water monitoring.  Air monitoring is done over long aggregate periods, but water monitoring is done in very isolated snap-shots.  Snap-shots can completely miss grains of lead that tend to break off in lead pipes.  Further, lead pipes do not leach in regular patterns and may not be system wide.  Lead can be poisoning one house, while the house next door is relatively safe.  Like air monitoring, it almost seems like the monitoring methods of the EPA were created by the water utility industry.

In the examples of both air and water,  the monitoring and the enforcement of the federal laws seem very sympathetic to the industries being regulated.  This is not to say that the EPA is just a shill for industries.  I am sure there are many at the EPA who take their jobs and responsibilities very serious.  But at the same time, the fact that two different methods of monitoring (aggregate and shap-shot) just happen to be perfectly aligned to the industry that can benefit the most does bring one to pause and think.  Even more of a paradox is why Republican law makers would want to do away with the EPA.  With the EPA created by the Republicans, one might think of it as a great opportunity to take credit for clean air and water.  I guess in our era of anti-government sentiments, that is not an option.

One might still caution the dismantling of the EPA on grounds other that clean air and water.  Following a ‘watered down” regulatory structure should still give industries a legal refuge.  In other words, if our water utilities are poisoning us with lead, as long as they are in compliance with EPA rules for safety, there is a civil law push back.  But what if the EPA goes away?  There are all the scientific studies available that show the harmfulness of lead in the water that utilities must make themselves aware, otherwise they have not performed due diligence and may open themselves up for civil action.   If the EPA is still around and a utility is following their guidelines, that is the legal standard and the EPA standard seems to be a pretty low bar.  The bottom line is that everyone deserves clean water and clean air.  The current incarnation of the EPA provides some protection and that protection is for both citizens and corporations and utilities.  Doing away with the EPA may be very short sighted as it could open corporations and utilities to civil risk not present in today’s softball regulatory game.  Are the EPA monitoring methods clear or accurate?  Oh say can you see if the river is still burning?



STS 6234: Welcome all

This is our class blog — the space that will bring together your posts and will allow us to read and respond to your thoughts. Looking forward to exciting, creative, risk-taking, enlightening, and thought-deepening conversations! Yanna

Should we equalize the authority of citizens in regulatory science?

Richard Sclove asserts in his book, Democracy and Technology, that, given equal opportunity, non-scientists can not only understand technical information, but that they can also contribute to new scientific knowledge (Sclove, 1995, 50). He further argues that whether a non-scientist can grasp complex technical information is not the real problem. He contends that the real problem is the reverse argument – scientists making technical decisions without understanding the societal or political implications:

“Those who argue against lay involvement in socio-technological decision making often seem to be alluding to horrendous decisions and social consequences that they know will ensue. Yet review of actual experience with lay participation does not yield a bumper crop of disastrous decisions. After all, it was not panels of laypeople who designed the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear plants; who created the conditions culminating in tragedy at Union Carbide’s Bhopal, India, pesticide factory; who bear responsibility for the explosion of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger; or who enabled the Exxon Valdez oil spill” (ibid., 50).

Sclove argues that new scientific knowledge and technology are, “ineradicably value-laden and specific to particular cultural contexts, and thus should never be a candidate for monopolized production by supposedly impartial experts” (ibid., 50).

Sclove, Richard E. (1995). Democracy and Technology. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Federal Register Notice

The lead modeling public peer review meeting will be held on June 27 and 28, 2017 in Washington DC. The registration deadline to attend the meeting in-person or via teleconference, and to request to make a brief oral statement at the meeting, is June 22, 2017.

What is Regulatory Science?

Regulatory science is created, “through evolving systems of framing, classification, calculation, and control,” with the goal of, “producing a new state of technologically improved, or designed, nature” (Jasanoff, 2005, 95). According to Jasanoff, regulatory science is the mechanism for providing legitimacy to basic science when it encounters society. She calls this effort normalization. It signals the starting point of the process where public trust institutions (such as EPA or OSHA) make agreements with society about risk. Jasanoff discusses how regulatory science can be used as a mechanism to normalize scientific innovations that have a tremendous impact on the public. This attempt at normalization, typically driven by industry, is an attempt to create legitimacy by making, “vague, unnamed, and unbounded fears,” into, “specific and tractable” ideas (Jasanoff, 2005, 95).

Jasanoff posits that the normalization of regulatory science typically would bring, “public perception back in line with the rational risk calculations made by experts” (Jasanoff, 2005, 99). In most events the normalized regulatory science would not be challenged. The authority of that regulatory science and its risk standards would stand as the measure of what society could consider safe. She argues that this, “apparent closure of controversy was achieved in a period of American deregulation that reduced the type and intensity of scrutiny,” established by regulatory science. (Jasanoff, 99). Expert, and other regulatory agencies would interpret this, “lowering of skeptical oversight as evidence that the research was acceptably safe, but the stability of this conclusion strongly depended on the credibility of the U.S. regulatory process as a whole” (Jasanoff, 2005, 100).

So what do we as a society think about that credibility? Can we find examples when designated experts (EPA, OSHA, utilities, etc) have used this normalized “legitimacy” to defend themselves from liability? Do experts claim the authority of science to support their conclusions and test results regarding the safety of – for example – drinking water? How does society challenge this regulatory science? Or better yet – how does society get involved in its creation?

Jasanoff, Sheila. (2005). Designs on Nature. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.