Tip Sheets

Scientists critical of E.P.A.’s new air, water protections for poor, but see promise in tech

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Jeff Tyson

The E.P.A. has announced that it will bolster enforcement and monitoring of air and water quality in disadvantaged communities. The following Cornell University scientists offered their critiques of the new approach and signaled what the development could mean for the future of air quality monitoring technology. 

Jerel Ezell

Assistant Professor in Africana Studies

Jerel Ezell, professor of Africana studies and an expert in health disparities and social inequality in post-industrial communities, says the E.P.A.’s top-down enforcement policies don’t empower local communities to assess and report environmental hazards, which is critical to achieving environmental equity.

Ezell says: 

“The E.P.A.'s stated commitment to environmental justice validates how pollution and other forms of environmental degradation undermine efforts to generate social and health equity in America, but this new initiative sends mixed signals. The E.P.A. often fails to make its work comprehensible to the general public and, at the same time, continues to have a very limited focus on providing communities with the knowledge they need to understand and appreciate the scope of their environmental risks.  

“Another particularly big piece missing from this initiative is bolstering local communities' capacity to independently assess, monitor, and report on environmental hazards. The government continues to insist on top-down oversight and enforcement policies that have proven ineffective and that, rather than empower and reassure communities, create expectations that government can't meet, fueling further animosity and distrust.  

“Only a highly collaborative, centralized approach to generating environmental justice will ensure that the E.P.A. can achieve its goals of environmental equity.” 

Catherine Kling

Tisch University Professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and faculty director at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability

Catherine Kling, an environmental economist, says increased E.P.A. enforcement of water quality won’t solve the problem without an overhaul of inefficient wastewater treatment plants. 

Kling says:

“The truth is, enforcement is a band aid for drinking water. A more fundamental issue is that many communities have old, poorly operating, or nonexistent wastewater treatment plants and lack the funds to build and maintain proper facilities. If significant upgrades to these areas are provided through the infrastructure funding bill, real progress could be made.   

“It is also important to recognize that 14% of American households receive their drinking water from private wells that are not subject to regulation and mandatory standards on drinking water quality. Households in rural areas with high nitrate concentrations in soil and water are particularly at risk, especially if they do not have the financial resources to address the problems.” 

John D. Albertson

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

John Albertson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering focused on sourcing and monitoring emissions and air quality, says the E.P.A.'s announcement could spark innovations in air quality monitoring technology.

Albertson says:

“We need regular surveillance measurements at the neighborhood scale. Satellite data is not yet appropriate for this, for a host of technical reasons. This leaves either fixed point sensors or mobile sensors. If fine scale variability is the open question, then mobile sensing is the most appropriate approach. 

“Today’s E.P.A. announcement will spark technological innovation to the degree to which it creates a market. 

“With our start up, mAIRsure, we have developed an opportunistic approach, where sensors can be put on fleet vehicles as they are moving around a region doing their core business. The data is pushed to the cloud and used to map the air quality and identify hot spots of concern. We have been successful doing this in oil and gas producing regions, and now we are beginning to do it in urban settings as well. 

“This offers an economic form of surveillance to identify air quality problems for mitigation. One could even set goals at the neighborhood level and adjust transportation patterns to ensure the goals are met. Of course, it would require continual surveillance, and this must be done in an economic manner.” 

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