Brown Bag Lecture: Community-Based Air Monitoring as Moral Repair: Understanding the (In)significance of Monitoring Data for Refinery-Adjacent Communities

October 9, 2017
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Chemical Heritage Foundation
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a Brown Bag Lecture with Gwen Ottinger, associate professor in the Department of Politics and the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Drexel University, and Kelsey Boone, a Drexel student.

After more than 20 years of ambient air monitoring at oil-refinery fencelines using various technologies, residents of neighboring communities still struggle to understand what the data mean. Even though the data have been limited in their ability to stimulate action or prove negative health effects, refinery-adjacent communities continue to advocate for expanded air monitoring. Drawing on oral-history interviews with early leaders of the community-based air-monitoring movement, we account for this apparent paradox, arguing that monitoring should not be understood primarily in the context of scientific proof. Rather, it should be understood as a kind of “repair work” aimed at mitigating what philosopher Margaret Urban Walker calls the “moral vulnerability” of communities with respect to multinational oil companies whose right to pollute is largely upheld by both the state and the larger society. Viewed as repair work, ambient air monitoring serves two purposes: it affirms the truth of residents’ exposure experiences, validating their status as epistemic agents, and attempts to bring refineries into a “relationship of mutual accountability” with affected communities. While the data gleaned from air monitoring play a role in both validating residents’ claims and calling refineries to account, we show that overemphasizing data interpretation can obscure the moral terrain at stake in community air monitoring.

About the Speakers

Gwen Ottinger is an associate professor in the Department of Politics and the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Drexel University. A former Beckman Center fellow, Ottinger is the author of Refining Expertise: How Responsible Engineers Subvert Environmental Justice Challenges (winner of the Society for Social Studies of Science’s 2015 Rachel Carson Prize).

Kelsey Boone is a student at Drexel University, majoring in biological sciences with a minor in politics. For her third co-op she worked as part of the Fair Tech Collective, which integrated an internship in the Center for Oral History at the Institute with research conducted in Drexel’s Center for Science, Technology, and Society. She is set to graduate in March 2018.

About the Series

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.