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In some toxic towns, many feel the government has been ‘pretty much shut down’ for decades

For those living near Superfund sites, the shutdown fueled fears that the EPA isn't able to respond in an emergency.

Dawn Chapman, left, and Karen Nickel wear protective masks at the West Lake Landfill near St. Louis, Missouri on June 1, 2017. CREDIT: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Dawn Chapman, left, and Karen Nickel wear protective masks at the West Lake Landfill near St. Louis, Missouri on June 1, 2017. CREDIT: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Three months after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved a cleanup plan for the radioactive waste at the West Lake Landfill in Missouri, a large part of the federal government, including the EPA, shut down its operations. EPA oversight of the West Lake radioactive dump, located in Bridgeton, Missouri, near St. Louis, was officially put on hold on December 29, when agency funding ran out.

Residents of Bridgeton and surrounding communities had been waiting decades for the government to take action. The EPA placed the site on its Superfund National Priorities List 29 years ago — in 1990. But over the next two decades, the EPA mostly ignored the West Lake landfill. That is, until a massive underground fire at an adjacent landfill in Bridgeton was detected in 2010.

Residents and cleanup experts worried about the vicinity of the underground fire; the fire was located only a few hundred yards from the radioactive waste that had been illegally dumped at West Lake more than 45 years ago.

Having an underground fire located so close to a radioactive waste dump had already been causing anxiety among local residents. But then residents’ concerns about the safety of the Superfund site intensified when the government shutdown led to the furlough of EPA employees who were monitoring the West Lake Landfill.

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Local and state emergency responders did not the have the ability to handle a major flareup at the West Lake site without the help of the federal government.

“We do have an emergency plan in place, but much of that plan depends on a response from the federal government,” Dawn Chapman, a local resident and co-founder of Just Moms, a group that has been campaigning for the cleanup of the West Lake Landfill, told ThinkProgress. “Nobody at the state or local level has what it would take to respond to an emergency at this site.”

Across the country, residents who live near highly toxic Superfund sites found themselves with similar concerns during the government shutdown. Already facing years or decades of government inaction, residents complained that the shutdown would further delay the EPA’s legal requirement to protect them from the dangerously toxic sites in their hometowns.

Congress passed legislation in 1980 to create the Superfund program in order to clean up areas contaminated with hazardous waste that poses a health risk. There are about 1,340 sites across the nation on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List. When a site is added to the list, it becomes eligible for long-term remedial action financed under the Superfund program.

Like residents of Bridgeton, Missouri, communities in the northwestern Indiana city of East Chicago have also been waiting decades for the EPA to clean up their community from massive amounts of lead and arsenic contamination. The site includes part of the former USS Lead facility along with nearby commercial, municipal, and residential areas.

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On one residential property in the contaminated area, tests revealed an astonishing 90,000 parts per million (ppm) of lead contamination. The EPA safe standard is 400 ppm of lead, although many public health experts argue the agency’s standard needs to be made even stricter.

More than a thousand residents in East Chicago have been waiting on answers from the EPA after contamination at the West Calumet Housing Complex forced them to evacuate their homes in 2016. Those people — including 700 children — all had increased levels of lead in their blood. The EPA found some lead levels at the complex to be more than 70 times higher the legal safety standard.

The EPA was set to hold a public hearing on a cleanup proposal for the land on the former USS Lead facility on January 10. But due to the government shutdown, the EPA initially canceled the meeting.

Then, earlier this week, the EPA changed its mind and rescheduled the public meeting in East Chicago for February 13. The agency also announced a new public comment period on methods for cleaning up the contaminated soil that will run from mid-February through mid-March.

“While we’re definitely happy that the community will get a chance to talk to the EPA in the community meeting and through further comment period, there is still confusion caused by the shutdown,” said Aaron Corn, an attorney who works out of the Gary, Indiana office of the Hoosier Environmental Council, a nonprofit group.

Even though the government shutdown ended a week ago, on January 25, the EPA was slow to update its website to provide residents of East Chicago with new information about the agency’s plans for the Superfund site, Corn noted.

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The EPA’s preferred cleanup plan for the East Chicago site has sparked criticism among many residents. East Chicago was the first Superfund site that former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt visited after taking over as agency chief. Instead of meeting with residents in the impacted neighborhood, however, Pruitt met with higher-ranking city and state officials during his visit to East Chicago.

Most of the residents of the contaminated area want a full cleanup to ensure all of the soil contaminated with lead and arsenic is removed. But the EPA proposed a partial cleanup plan that would remove only the top 24 inches of soil in the Superfund area, which is in three different neighborhoods.

The soil composition of East Chicago would cause the lead and arsenic contaminants to eventually make their way back up to the surface, according to Corn. Under the EPA’s preferred plan, residents who wanted to plant gardens and children playing in their yards would eventually be faced with similar contamination concerns as the high concentrations of lead would return to the surface.

Due to the lead and arsenic contamination, the West Calumet Housing Complex, subsidized with funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was evacuated in 2016. Last year, the housing complex was torn down.

More than 800 homes and business are still in the area. According to Corn, the EPA contends its plan to remove only the top 24 inches of soil would protect residents in the area. “Hopefully the EPA will take those concerns seriously in the next meeting, shift the remediation efforts in response to the community concerns,” Corn said.

Residents of East Chicago and other communities identified as Superfund sites are accustomed to waiting long periods for the government to take action. In some areas, a government shutdown isn’t viewed much differently than when the government is open due to how the government often takes decades to help communities that are living in areas contaminated by industry or the Defense Department.

“In a marginalized community or a community of color that has been economically
disparaged, one of the things we face is that the government has been pretty much shut down for 40 years,” said Thomas Frank, a resident of East Chicago and co-founder of Calumet Lives Matter, a group organized to campaign for a full cleanup of the contaminated area in the city.

“It took 40 years for the EPA to finally test that soil, to do some kind of a comprehensive testing, to find out that at 91,000 parts per million, it was probably the worst lead and arsenic contamination in the country,” Frank said.

In East Chicago and at other Superfund sites, the EPA generally conducts planning during the winter to prepare for the cleanup process to begin in the spring. “Much of the planning that we were hoping the EPA would do as they prepare for cleanup in the spring,” Frank said, “was delayed by the government shutdown.”

In West Virginia, residents of Minden, a town contaminated with PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls, a highly toxic industrial chemical — from an old industrial facility, celebrated last September when the EPA announced it was proposing that a portion of the town would be included on the National Priorities List. PCBs are likely to be carcinogenic in humans.

A final determination on whether to add Minden to the National Priorities List was scheduled to happen this spring, but the partial government shutdown has reportedly pushed that back.

“We have to wait even longer now on the EPA to go through a process on testing soil in Minden because it is the government and it takes forever,” Susie Worley-Jenkins, a long-time Minden resident who has campaigned for years to get the EPA to clean up the town and provide money for people to move out of the contaminated town.

Worley-Jenkins, who has been diagnosed with cancer four times, said the most recent shutdown likely didn’t delay the EPA’s plans to test the soil in Minden for PCBs because those tests weren’t scheduled to happen until the spring.

Another government shutdown, however, could further delay the EPA’s ability to move forward with developing a cleanup plan in Minden and affect Superfund cleanup efforts at other sites across the country.

In Massachusetts, the EPA’s work in Berkshire County to clean up the Housatonic River was put on hold during the government shutdown.

In the mid-20th century, the Housatonic River and its floodplain were contaminated with PCBs and other hazardous substances released from a General Electric Co. (GE) facility located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Over the past two decades, more than 115,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment, bank, and floodplain soil have been removed from the river and residential property. But the cleanup of the Housatonic River is far from over.

The EPA continues to participate in mediated discussions with GE and other parties on an agreement to speed up the final cleanup of the river. The EPA also has received documents from GE that the company was required to submit to the agency as part of its permit.

But due to the government shutdown, the EPA was unable to participate in the mediated discussion on cleanup of the Housatonic River. The agency’s review of the documents submitted by GE also was halted during the shutdown. The shutdown “could impact schedules for monitoring and other works planned by GE later this year,” EPA spokesperson Emily Bender said in an email to ThinkProgress.

“At this and our other Superfund-related work in Massachusetts, we are working to catch-up on work that was slowed down or stopped during the shutdown,” Bender said.

At the West Lake Landfill site in Missouri, Chapman worries about what will happen to the site if there is another government shutdown later this month.

During a shutdown, there is no legal mechanism under the Superfund law for the states to take over in the event of an emergency. There are no guidelines for handling emergencies “when there is no federal government, no federal oversight,” she said.

In the 1970s, the West Lake Landfill became the resting place for the waste from the uranium used to make plutonium for the nation’s first nuclear bombs. The waste was illegally dumped at the landfill.

Due to the underground smoldering fire at the adjacent landfill the EPA in 2015 ordered the installation of an underground protective barrier. “We’re holding this fire back with every piece that we know how to, but it may not be enough,” Chapman said.

The underground fire at the landfill that abuts West Lake is expected to continue for years to come. Experts fear that attempts to excavate the landfill in order to put out the fire could increase toxic fumes and increase the risk of the fire climbing to the surface.

During the government shutdown, Chapman contacted Steven Cook, EPA deputy assistant administrator and chair of the agency’s Superfund task force, to find out what residents should do in the case of an emergency at the West Lake Landfill Superfund site when the EPA entered its shutdown period.

In a December 28 email seen by ThinkProgress, Cook instructed Chapman to contact the EPA Region 7 spill line “since someone will always be answering that line.” The EPA Region 7 office is based near Kansas City, Missouri.

Cook warned Chapman that the shutdown could impact the EPA’s ability to respond to an emergency. “Please be mindful that we may be limited in our ability to provide a substantive response depending on the issue involved,” he wrote in the email.

Cook’s email did not calm Chapman’s anxiety about what the EPA would do should the underground fire come into contact with the radioactive waste.

According to Chapman, Cook, in his email, basically said: “Y’all are on your own. We’re limited here.”

In reaction to the email, Chapman said, “We just kind of cringed and put our head in our hands.”