“Demonstrating for the Environment: Scrubbers and EPA’s Sulfur Dioxide Control during the 1970s”

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A talk by Jongmin Lee

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established in December 1970 at the beginning of the “environmental decade.” In the following 10 years public awareness of the pollution and efforts toward its remediation dramatically increased. The EPA was often found at the hearings, courtrooms, and classrooms. What was happening inside the EPA’s offices and laboratories? This talk focused on scrubbers, devices absorbing sulfur dioxide from coal-fired power-plant emissions. It first examined how EPA engineers successfully developed and demonstrated scrubbers as the pollution-control technology against its technical and regulatory alternatives like low-sulfur coal, stack height increases, and intermittent control systems. This talk further pointed out the EPA’s response to the environmental effects of scrubbers, such as the disposal of sludge. Lee also showed the rise of the control-technology approach in the subsequent air-pollution control.

Jongmin Lee is a Ph.D. candidate in science and technology studies at Virginia Tech. In his dissertation titled “Engineering the Environment: Regulatory Engineering in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1970–1980,” Lee investigates how environmental engineering and regulation were coproduced in the EPA amid constant organizational changes that shaped the research practices in and professional identity politics of environmental engineering. With a background in engineering and history, he is interested in the consequences of technological efforts to deal with environmental problems and shifting political relations between environmentalists and technocrats.