The Costs of Clean Water in Hoosick Falls: Private Civil Litigation and the Regulation of Drinking Water Quality
Bronwen B. O’Herin
Despite extensive statutory law and regulations governing drinking water quality in the United States, water-contamination crises have been a regular feature of the American news cycle in recent years, perhaps most notably in Flint, Michigan, but also in a disturbing number of localities across the United States, including the upstate New York town of Hoosick Falls. This Note uses the water-contamination crisis in Hoosick Falls as a case study to analyze why these apparent regulatory failings continue to persist. This case study reveals how scientific uncertainty, resource constraints, and the socio-political dynamics of public regulation in the drinking-water context limit public ex ante regulatory mechanisms’ power to deter drinking-water contamination and to rebalance the equities disrupted when drinking-water pollution occurs. In Hoosick, private tort litigation has the potential to be a powerful vehicle for addressing such regulatory shortcomings, but its ability to do so will turn on whether courts are willing to be more flexible in their conceptions of legally cognizable harm. I argue that such flexible conceptions are justified and would serve a crucial dual purpose—bolstering pollution deterrence and providing a forum in which social costs not accounted for during the regulatory, industrial, and political processes that drive public-resource governance may, finally, be accounted for.