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Workshop Highlights States' Roles in Environmental Protection

This October, Northeastern University hosted the workshop, “Environmental Policy in Massachusetts: Promoting Safe Development in a Time of Economic Uncertainty.” The workshop explored the key role that states play in advancing the dual—and sometimes competing—agendas of economic development and environmental quality.

The springboard for discussions was four case studies developed by Northeastern’s Nanotechnology and Society Research Group (NSRG).  The case studies document ways in which Massachusetts has sought to support technological innovation while being mindful of the potential health and environmental risks from emerging technologies, including nanotechnologies.

“The role of states in environmental protection is more critical than ever, given the virtual stalemate at the federal level on many of the most pressing environmental issues of the day,” said Professor Christopher J. Bosso, NSRG Principal Investigator.  “In many areas, Massachusetts is at the forefront of efforts to anticipate and prevent risks before they become problems.”

The workshop brought together Northeastern University faculty and students with representatives of the state’s environmental and occupational safety and health agencies, biotechnology and nanotechnology businesses, and faculty at UMass Lowell and the University of Pennsylvania. The format was a roundtable discussion in which a Northeastern University faculty member presented each case study, after which practitioners or scholars who had been involved in the case offered their perspectives, followed by a general discussion.

Jacqueline Isaacs, Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, presented the case about how Massachusetts came to establish a safe drinking water standard for the chemical perchlorate, the first such standard in the country.  The case is notable because states generally rely on the US Environmental Protection Agency to enact such standards. Carol Rowan West and Robert Golledge, who led the effort at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to establish the standard, offered their perspectives how Massachusetts marshaled the scientific and political resources to set a standard in the absence of federal leadership.

Lee Breckenridge, Professor of Law, presented the case study of the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act (TURA), the first law in the country to require private sector managers to develop plans to reduce their use of toxic chemicals.  TURA is unusual in that it does not require firms to implement their plans, only to go through a rigorous planning process.  Cary Coglianese, Edward B. Shils Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, led a discussion on TURA’s overall effectiveness over its twenty-year history and the degree to which the law has affected the behavior of firms and regulators alike.

Kirsten Rodine-Hardy, Assistant Professor of Political Science, presented the case of how Massachusetts revised its environmental regulations in response to the needs of the state’s important biotechnology industry. The case illustrates how a state government seeks to balance the goals of economic development and environmental protection.  Dale Blank, a consultant to the biotech industry, explained how those changes establish a more predictable regulatory environment for industry while maintaining high standards of environmental performance.

Sonia Elise Rolland, Assistant Professor of Law, presented the case study of the Massachusetts Interagency Nanotechnology Committee, an effort by six Massachusetts agencies to anticipate risks from nanotechnologies.  One member of the Committee, the Massachusetts Office of Technical Assistance, recently issued guidance on best management practices for firms developing or handling nanomaterials.  Martin Griffin, Science Policy Coordinator of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, discussed a similar effort underway in Wisconsin and framed the Massachusetts experience within the broader role of state governments.

Prof. Bosso hopes the insights from the workshop will help inform the safe development of emerging technologies in Massachusetts and elsewhere. When final, the case studies will be available for use in classroom teaching. The project was funded by a National Science Foundation grant, “Nanotechnology in the Public Interest: Regulatory Challenges, Capacity, and Policy Recommendations” (SES #0609078).

– Courtesy of CSSH Dean’s Office

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