The government shutdown, is as of this writing, in its 33rd day. That means that there are 800,000 federal employees without a paycheck and nine federal departments are closed, affecting about 25 percent of the government.
The EPA is one of the federal departments that are closed, and has 13,000 employees furloughed with only 750 employees currently working without pay. Certain functions of the EPA are at a standstill such as cleaning up hazardous waste at Superfund sites, inspecting chemical facilities, and reviewing and approving both substances and pesticides.
The EPA can’t quickly respond to emergencies with a staff of only 750 and lacks employees to test water, air and the soil for pollution. Hundreds of inspections take place each week around the country, but during the shutdown none are occurring. “If there is no agreement on the 2019 budget soon, you may start to see long-term damage to the environment,” according to the site Sciencing.
Delaying an EPA proposal to regulate PFAS chemicals
There are countless examples of the impact of the shutdown on the EPA. One of them is the delay of a proposal to regulate perfluorinated chemicals, commonly known as PFAS, which is used to make non-stick cookware, firefighting foam, and stain resistant clothing. The proposal was slated to be released at the end of 2018. PFAS chemicals have been detected in water systems in the Ohio Valley.
During the nomination hearing for Andrew Wheeler to lead the EPA, who currently is its acting administrator, the members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works asked him about the impact of the shutdown. “Our PFAS management plan we were hoping to unveil it next week with the shutdown it’s going to be delayed slightly,” Wheeler said. “It’s in the middle of inter-agency review.”
Lack of inspections at sites across the country
Part of the EPA employees furloughed are the 600 pollution inspectors and others who monitor environmental law compliance, according to a New York Times article published earlier this month. The article mentions that the employees furloughed include those that found illegal levels of chemicals in Karnes County, Texas oil and gas fields during airborne inspections in August 2018.
PBS NewsHour interviewed Coral Davenport, the author of the New York Times article.
“Typically, these inspectors, these EPA, engineers and scientists, would be going to places like power plants, oil refineries, chemical facilities, chemical manufacturers,” she said. “None of this is being overseen right now.”
Davenport pointed out that facility owners know that inspections will not take place during the shutdown. However, she said that “more than 90 percent of industries are pretty good actors,” but often times “violations of pollutions rules are unintentional.” A facility might have a broken equipment piece laying around and not know it “could be leaching hazardous material, hazardous waste,” she said. That puts communities at risk to be exposed to toxic chemicals and waste from industrial sites, she added.
There is also a danger of contamination from Superfund sites that are not being cleaned up during the shutdown. “As time goes on, and as the risk of some kind of flood or rain or something that causes problems increases, then the risk of something going wrong for the public living around the sites increases,” Associated Press reporter Ellen Knickmeyer told PBS NewsHour.
Collecting climate data is disrupted
The government shutdown is also disrupting the ability of scientists to collect climate data, Sciencing points out. Annual temperature analysis reports cannot be released, which also affects science organizations globally. Another casualty of the shutdown is the disaster-cost estimate for 2018 for natural disasters that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases.
The NOAA’s climate data cannot be accessed by the public due to the shutdown. People who visit the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) website instead are taken to a page that tells them, “The website you are trying to access is not available at this time due to a lapse in appropriation. NOAA.gov and specific NOAA websites necessary to protect lives and property are operational and will be maintained during this partial closure of the U.S. Government.”
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