Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Persistent: Why New York State and the United States Still Don’t Regulate PFOA in Drinking Water
by Rabinow, Laura, Ph.D., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2019, 333; 22584557
Abstract (Summary)

In late 2015, residents of Hoosick Falls, New York, learned that their drinking water was contaminated by perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Despite the longer history of PFOA in manufacturing in the United States and the likely use of PFOA in local factories for decades, Hoosick Falls’ contamination was not discovered during routine regulatory processes or investigations, but was instead uncovered by a concerned resident. The contamination in Hoosick Falls is, unfortunately, not unique. Water supplies across New York State, and indeed across the US, are impacted by a universe of some 85,000 pollutants, only around 90 of which have an enforceable regulatory standard under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Using an interdisciplinary and mixed methods approach that triangulates historical analysis, policy analysis, and discourse analysis, this research examines three interrelated questions with respect to the contamination in Hoosick Falls: why was there no enforceable regulatory limit for PFOA at the federal or state level at the time the contamination came to light; how have state policy makers responded to the contamination in and around Hoosick Falls, and worked to maintain their authority through a crisis of public trust; and, how have residents affected by the contamination worked to understand, engage and contest official actions and knowledge production about the contamination?

This study contributes to a body of social research that illuminates variation in national and regional approaches to chemical regulation. Studies of chemical governance typically focus on federal level standards and policies, but in the US, states sometimes adopt widely varying water contaminant standards. This case study therefore makes a novel contribution by showing how state level policies interact with federal regulatory systems, on one hand, and local-level crises, on the other. Furthermore, this research contributes to theoretical questions about the maintenance of authority in the context of a legitimation crisis, and advances understandings of how public officials, regulatory scientists, and concerned publics contribute to and contend with ignorance about “emerging contaminants” in drinking water supplies. It reflects that relevant landmark environmental regulatory programs are structured to produce incommensurate science about those contaminants, and that in this case the ignorance produced by those programs worked in concert with a public health regulatory culture of minimization and to produce an absence of regulation. On a broader scale, with respect to the large universe of unregulated contaminants, this case demonstrates how those structures and cultures, and their attendant production of ignorance, work to maintain the legitimacy of regulatory-industrial systems and authority over them.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Kinchy, Abby
Commitee: Campbell, Nancy, Cordner, Alissa, Breyman, Steve
School: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Department: Science and Technology Studies
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 81/6(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Political science, Public health, Environmental Studies
Keywords: Authority, Chemical contamination, Ignorance, PFAS, Regulatory science, Water
Publication Number: 22584557
ISBN: 9781392631621
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