As the government shutdown bleeds into its second day, more than 94 percent of the 16,205 public servants at the Environmental Protection Agency are not allowed to go to work. This means that cleanup on 62 percent of the nation’s Superfund sites must be abandoned until a continuing resolution gets passed and funding resumes.
The Superfund program cleans up the worst toxic waste sites in America. An EPA official told Huffington Post that because of the shutdown, 505 Superfund locations in 47 states across the country would be suspended. There are 807 current sites, so with 505 of them shuttered, that’s 62 percent left to their own devices.
They chose the 38 percent by deciding which Superfund site managers’ work prevents immediate threats to human life (as opposed to more long, drawn-out harm). This means only locations that, if work stopped, contaminants would immediately get into the drinking water, for instance. Some contractors can continue work for a few weeks until their funding runs out, unless they reach a stage where EPA Remedial Project Managers are needed to approve the step. Work would stop then, even if there is funding available.
The dredging of New Jersey’s Passaic River of dioxins, PCBs, and mercury will continue this week, though it is unclear for how long. Another Jersey toxic waste site in Garfield may stop plans to excavate soil leaching chromium into nearby residents’ basements.
The chaotic nature and uncertainty of shutting down a government in one day meant that some residents were left in limbo on whether they would start being relocated from a hazardous waste site in Lockport, NY.
There, residents along the Eighteen Mile Creek Superfund site were scheduled to hear whether the EPA would begin working with people living nearby to buy their properties and help relocate them to homes uncontaminated by asbestos, PCBs, lead, and chromium. Yet the local EPA community involvement coordinator, Mike Basile, said the shutdown had prevented that from happening.
Asked on Tuesday morning if the regional EPA administrator had signed off on a Record of Decision to proceed with the relocation plan, he said, “I don’t know. I can’t find out because it’s so chaotic today.”
Even if he did, there are now no EPA workers available to help with the cleanup or relocation because of the shutdown. So residents will have to wait that much longer to find out how their contaminated property will be remediated.
The government shutdown also halted efforts to clean up the Superfund site at a former Chem Fab electroplating and metal processing plant in Doylestown, PA.
On Tuesday, EPA officials told Doylestown Borough Manager John Davis that because of the shutdown, there was no money to continue cleanup efforts. “They are buttoning up whatever they are involved in and leaving today. Previously scheduled sampling has been cancelled until the shut down is over,” Davis said.
“Obviously we’re a little disappointed because we were just starting to get some momentum.”
The cleanup plans were to start this week, and include excavation of contaminated soil and groundwater monitoring for volatile organic compounds — chemicals the company had dumped on-site while it operated from 1965 to 1994.
After that, it was taken over by drug dealers who used the site as a meth lab. The FBI and EPA shut down the site in 1995, removing thousands of gallons of chromic acid waste.
A call to the site’s Remedial Project Manager, Huu Ngo, yielded one of the now-all-too-common voicemails stating that due to the shutdown, he would not be able to check messages until funding was restored.
Elliott Laws oversaw EPA’s Superfund program during the last shutdown. He told E&E News that a short-term shutdown is one thing, but “if it drags on, you start getting into a different situation.”
“They wait so long to have some action taken to remove this contamination. It’s damaging to the communities, it hurts the agency in its mission and in its commitments that it makes to communities.”