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?



3 Replies to “What’s all this about the EPA?”

  1. Great food for thought!

    You’ve put your finger on a very important phenomenon: the inextricable interconnection between science and values. Who could argue that gathering air pollution data over a 24-hour period and averaging out the results is unscientific? Similarly, who could argue that sampling for lead in water by taking only one sample per tap is unscientific? And yet, how often is it revealed that these methodologies are shaped by (and promote) specific values, which can have significant social implications and can even cause or perpetuate harm? The air- and water-monitoring protocols you mention seem like an apt illustration of the political authority of science described by Welsh and Wynne in their 2013 paper, “Science, Scientism, and Imaginaries of Publics in the UK.” Both sampling protocols are value-laden, serve some interests over others, and yet if affected communities were to challenge them, how would they risk being received? Labeled? As threats who oppose the values embedded in the science or as opponents of (pure) Science? Flint offers examples of this dynamic.

    On a different note, very interesting comments about EPA and industry/utility compliance with regulations. Btw, when it comes to lead in water, sadly and amazingly…, public health has not been the winner under Republican or Democratic administrations. Since 1991, when the LCR was enacted, EPA has been consistently resistant to strengthening the regulation, its implementation, and its enforcement. I doubt this will change anytime soon.

  2. I’ve got to give some full disclosure here, since I interviewed with the EPA as a potential placement as a science policy fellow, and have close friends who accepted placements at the EPA. The science fellows who placed with the EPA were among the most idealistic of our 120+ cohort of fellows, and were among the most likely to leave out of frustration- and this was before the current administration.

    A regulator is always caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. EPA staff find themselves constantly caught between advocates for both sides, and rarely have the sort of scientific firmness that one has in dealing with deciding other life and death situations. If I am building bridge, I have the firmness of a relatively absolute structural calculation. When I have to make decisions based on statistical models, and measurements that are inherently flawed, my decisions become much easier to attack.

    Even looking at the instant sampling versus longer average sampling question gets difficult. When you have to chose one or the other, you give up the ability to capture some risks. It is possible to make an unsafe situation look safe by making a particular choice- but it may also be possible to make a safe situation look unsafe by the same series of choices.

    This gets down to- what does it mean to be using scientific tools to be protecting the public safety when the tools themselves can be so easily bent to serve a particular view?

  3. I appreciate the complexity and challenge that you highlight. In the face of uncertainty, scientific calculations with policy implications must, indeed, be hard and must, indeed, place policy-makers between the devil and the deep blue sea.

    My question is, if we look at the groups of advocates between which EPA tends to find itself caught, what do we see? How common is it for these advocates to represent the most affected and disempowered populations, not by claiming that they speak for these populations, but by actually being selected to speak for these populations? And if some advocates do represent these populations, and these populations consider them their trusting representatives, what power/resources/relationships with EPA do they have to compete against the power/resources/relationships with EPA that seems to be prevalent between the agency and regulated entities?

    Lastly, in EPA’s policy-making process, how frequent is actual and meaningful public participation? In the case of the LCR, the advisory panel that the EPA first put together in 2013-14 for recommendations about how the regulation should be revised, included 15 members, 5 of whom were powerful water utility representatives and none of whom represented affected members of the public. I was invited in after the first meeting of the panel, in reaction to protests by a colleague of mine and myself about the skewed constitution of the group. This, despite the fact that EPA has committed itself to environmental justice principles that require meaningful public participation in the policy-making process.

    Fascinating (and disturbing) that the EPA fellows in your cohort were the most likely to leave. Ugh.

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