Pollution data backlog leaves local officials and residents fearing a second shutdown

In states like Louisiana and North Carolina, vulnerable areas are still assessing the shutdown's impacts.

The Cape Fear river is seen running under the North Main Street bridges on September 20, 2018 in Lillington, North Carolina. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The Cape Fear river is seen running under the North Main Street bridges on September 20, 2018 in Lillington, North Carolina. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A week after the partial government shutdown came to an end, officials in several parts of the country are facing a major backlog in critical pollution data. State agencies in places such as North Carolina and Louisiana continued to collect data over the past month, but it wasn’t processed or analyzed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and, as a result, communities were left in the dark. Now, as federal and state scientists and researchers work to reduce the backlog, many fear a second shutdown is imminent.

Another lapse in government funding would delay scheduled public meetings and contribute to an already-sizable data backlog in many areas. It would also mean less oversight of polluters and, in the case of some states, turning to private companies and labs in an effort to complete critical testing otherwise done by the federal government.

After 35 days, the longest shutdown in U.S. history ended last Friday, enabling hundreds of thousands of government workers to return to their jobs this week, including those at the EPA. But during the shutdown, many communities around the country saw a lapse in critical testing and reporting at sites riddled with toxins in the air, water, and ground, thanks to the mass-furlough of EPA workers.

In North Carolina, communities have long been suffering from the chemical GenX appearing in their water; GenX is part of a group of man-made chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Meanwhile in Louisiana, toxic pollution from a rubber plant continues to plague residents in one community not far from New Orleans.


In both instances, the EPA assists with testing this data. But the shutdown meant workers were largely barred from their typical duties outside of situations deemed to be extreme safety or health threats. The government’s reopening means a return to crucial data collection and analysis, as well as public access to updates — but it also means locals are worried about what could come next.

“Things get pushed into an unknown future,” said Wilma Subra, who works with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

At the beginning of the shutdown, Subra told ThinkProgress of concerns in LaPlace, located in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana. LaPlace is home to the Denka rubber plant, which emits the chemical chloroprene into the air and has been linked to an elevated risk for cancer in the area.

Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) works with the EPA to monitor air quality around Denka, with the results routinely reported back to residents to keep them informed. During the shutdown, an EPA contractor was designated to continue testing in the area. But the results were not reported back to residents as they normally are, leaving them in the dark about their level of toxic exposure.

On Monday, January 28, when the government fully reopened for business, Subra said the monitoring data was immediately released to the public and has now been shared with the community. But with only two weeks to go until the government faces potential closure again, Subra remains wary.


“The uncertainties going forward are meetings that were cancelled and not yet rescheduled possibly because of the possibility of another shutdown,” she told ThinkProgress via email Thursday.

Other areas hit hard by toxic pollution were also impacted by the shutdown. Some states eyed partnerships with private labs in an effort to ensure ongoing chemical testing. In Rockford, Michigan, meanwhile, a public town hall meeting intended to address PFAS pollution stemming from the former Wolverine World Wide tannery was canceled. One Superfund site in Missouri also suffered from reduced aid to local workers cleaning up radioactive waste, while other afflicted parts of the country similarly struggled with limited federal assistance.

That includes parts of North Carolina, where the Cape Fear River is closely monitored for traces of GenX, a chemical linked to cancer and other severe health problems. The Chemours Fayetteville plant was found two years ago to be contaminating the river, a problem that may have been ongoing for a decade or longer. The river is a source of drinking water for the city of Wilmington.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) has been working with the EPA, taking water samples and then sending them to the agency for testing in Athens, Georgia. But the shutdown significantly slowed things down. As the impasse dragged on, NCDEQ continued to take samples — but with EPA employees largely furloughed, the samples sat untested. Local environmental advocates worry this likely added to an already-outsized backlog that existed before the shutdown.

“The labs tend to be the bottleneck, so taking one of the available labs off line for more than a month exacerbates the slowdown,” said Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center’s (SELC) Clean Water Program, to ThinkProgress.

Some North Carolina activists have expressed concern that the lack of government oversight during the shutdown might have opened up opportunities for Chemours to take advantage of the situation, allowing safety standards to slip. But Gisler countered, arguing that the company likely would not seize upon the window, if only because of the threat of future testing.


The attorney did note that it’s unclear to locals whether the testing is up and running again. Moreover, the possibility of a second shutdown looms large.

“There is some concern that the government will be shuttered again,” he said.

The EPA national and regional North Carolina offices both failed to respond to requests for comment on the status of testing as of Thursday afternoon.

But the NCDEQ did respond, confirming that the state has closely monitored the testing situation and that the shutdown further burdened a backlog in the state. North Carolina has historically seen its environmental funding slashed repeatedly by conservative lawmakers, something that has hit the DEQ especially hard and left the department reliant on federal assistance.

“Under-resourced, overburdened state agencies rely on our partnerships with federal agencies like the EPA to protect drinking water and public health,” said Megan Thorpe, NCDEQ director of public affairs, to ThinkProgress on Thursday. “When the federal government shuts down, it puts people in North Carolina at risk.”

Concerns in North Carolina and elsewhere are only likely to heighten over the next two weeks. If a spending agreement is not reached by February 15, the government will shut down — leaving vulnerable communities out in the cold yet again.