By ELLEN KNICKMEYER and KIM CHANDLER, Associated Press
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The government shutdown has suspended federal cleanups at Superfund sites around the country and forced the cancellation of public hearings, deepening mistrust and resentment among those who feel people in power long ago abandoned them to living among the toxic residue of the country’s factories and mines.
“We are already hurting, and it’s just adding more fuel to the fire,” said the 40-year-old Keisha Brown. Her home lies among plants that turn coal into carbon-rich fuel on Birmingham’s north side.
Residents there, most of whom are black, have had to cope with high levels of arsenic, lead and other contaminants in soil that the Environmental Protection Agency has been scraping up and carting away, house by house.
As President Donald Trump and Congress battle over Trump’s demand for a wall on the southern U.S. border, the 3-week-old partial government shutdown has stopped federal work on many Superfund sites. The only exception is for sites where the administration has found there is “an imminent threat to the safety of human life or to the protection of property.”
During the shutdown, the EPA plans to evaluate about 800 Superfund sites to see how many of them could pose an immediate threat. The agency said such a threat could come, for instance, from a mine that’s leaking acid into a local water supply. Just such a hazard exists at Northern California’s Iron Mountain mine, where EPA workers have helped prevent an unending flow of lethally acidic runoff coming from a Superfund site from spilling into rivers downstream.
Practically speaking, said Bonnie Bellow, a former EPA official who had worked on Superfund public outreach at the agency, the effect of stopping work at sites throughout the country “wholly depends” on the length of the shutdown.
“Unless there is immediate risk like a storm, a flood, a week or two of slowdowns is not going to very likely affect the cleanup at the site,” Bellow said.
In north Birmingham, Brown said it’s been a couple of weeks since she has spotted any EPA crews at people’s houses. It was unclear if state workers or contractors were continuing to work.
But long before the shutdown began, Brown harbored doubts the cleanup was succeeding.
“My main concern is the health of the people out here,” said Brown, who has asthma. “All of us are sick, and we’ve got to function on medicine every day.”
At the EPA, the shutdown has put the bulk of the roughly 14,000 employees there on furlough. It also means the EPA isn’t getting many environmental questions and tips from the public. Routine inspections aren’t happening. State, local and private emails to EPA officials are often being responded to with automated messages promising an answer when the shutdown ends.
In Montana, for instance, state officials this month found themselves fielding calls from a tribal member worried about drinking water, said Kristi Ponozzo, public-policy director at that state’s Department of Environmental Quality. The EPA normally provides tribes with technical assistance on water supplies.
With most EPA employees idled, Ponozzo said her agency also had to call off an environmental-review meeting for a mining project, possibly delaying the work.
But it’s the agency’s work at Superfund sites — lessening the threat from old nuclear-weapons plants, chemical factories, mines and other entities — that gets much of the attention.
Absent any imminent peril, state governments or contractors will have to decide whether they want to continue any cleanup work during the shutdown “up to the point that additional EPA direction or funding is needed,” the EPA said in a statement.
“Sites where cleanup activities have been stopped or shut down will be secured until cleanup activities are able to commence when the federal government reopens,” the agency said.
For federal Superfund sites in Michigan, the shutdown means there are no EPA colleagues to consult, said Scott Dean, a spokesman for that state’s Department of Environmental Quality.
At Michigan Superfund sites, day-to-day field operations were continuing since private contractors do most of the on-the-ground work, Dean said.
Bellow, the former EPA official, said the cancellation of hearings about Superfund sites was posing immediate concerns.
In East Chicago, Indiana, for example, the EPA called off a public hearing that was originally scheduled for last Wednesday. The goal of the meeting was to outline how the agency planned to clean up high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil.
The EPA has proposed a seven-month, $26.5 million cleanup project calling for the treatment and removal of tainted soil from the area, where a lead smelter had once operated.
Local critics fear the EPA will use the delay caused by the shutdown as justification for pushing ahead with a cleanup plan they consider flawed, Chizewer said.