Engineering the Environment: Regulatory Engineering at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1970-1980

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Virginia Tech

My dissertation addresses how engineers, scientists, and bureaucrats generated knowledge about pollution, crafted an institution for environmental protection, and constructed a collective identity for themselves. I show an important shift in regulators' priorities, from stringent health-based standards to flexible technology-based ones through the development of end-of-pipeline pollution control devices, which contributed to the emergence of economic incentives and voluntary management programs. Drawing on findings from archival documents, published sources, and oral history interviews, I examine the first decade of the EPA amid constant organizational changes that shaped the technological and managerial character of environmental policy in the United States. Exploring the EPA's internal research and development processes and their relationship with scientific and engineering communities sheds light on how the new fields of environmental engineering and policy were co-produced in the 1970s.

I argue that two competing approaches for environmental management, a community health approach and a control technology approach, developed from EPA's responses to bureaucratic, geographical, and epistemic challenges. I focus on researchers and managers from the Office of Research and Development at Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, as they were engaged in (1) controversy about integrated aerometry and epidemiology research intended to correlate air pollution and health, (2) intra-agency debate about the government's responsibility for introducing catalytic converters for tailpipe emissions reduction and responding to the potential environmental and social consequences, and (3) inter-agency activities for the demonstration of scrubbers for smokestack emissions and further application of the control technology approach in energy-related environmental problems.

My principal conceptual contribution is "regulatory engineering." I define regulatory engineering as an approach to sociotechnical problems in which engineering practices are incorporated into regulatory and organizational changes, which in turn influences technical knowledge and identity formation. As EPA activities became closely associated with energy and economic issues toward the end of the 1970s, I argue that engineers took the initiative in demonstrating and evaluating control technologies for pollution abatement and energy development, scientists carefully studied environmental and health effects of these technologies, and regulators set up pollution standards and attainment deadlines accordingly. Studying the co-production of knowledge, institution, and identity through the lens of regulatory engineering helps us to understand technoscientific and managerial aspects of environmental governance beyond the 1970s EPA where technical feasibility considerations, economic incentives, and cooperative management expanded into legislation and regulation.

air pollution, control technology, environmental regulation, regulatory engineering, catalytic converter, scrubber, U.S. Environ