Entering its fourth week and now the longest in the country’s history, the partial government shutdown is affecting a wide range of federal employees and agencies. Naturally, water and wastewater treatment operations are no exception.
As a result of the shutdown, the U.S. EPA has been forced to furlough most of its pollution inspectors and others responsible for monitoring compliance with environmental regulations, according to a recent New York Times report. Without these inspectors in place, it’s possible that industrial or even municipal treatment operations won’t adhere to environmental laws, such as discharge standards.
“These are plants that discharge wastewater into streams and rivers … we show up and test these places to see if they’re meeting pollution laws,” a furloughed EPA inspector told the Times. “Now there’s nobody out there to check if they’re complying.”
While the EPA is retaining employees to respond to emergencies and disasters, as well as those who perform essential public health and safety work, routine inspections of water and wastewater treatment plants and pollution violation enforcement have not been taking place.
“The public should be concerned because we’re not going out and doing the inspections we normally do,” a furloughed inspector and union president told WBUR. “Hopefully the people operating these [wastewater and water treatment] plants are operating them properly. But there is the potential that these facilities — because they know they’re not going to be inspected, or because they aren’t being inspected — there could be violations.”
The Times reported that in 2017, the EPA performed about 11,700 inspections. But that, already during the shutdown this year, the agency may have canceled hundreds of such inspections so far. It’s hard to see how these inspections could be made up after the fact. In the meantime, it appears public safety could truly be in danger without these routine water and wastewater treatment inspections taking place.
“[Furloughed EPA inspector Angela] McFadden recalled a more frightening inspection she once performed in Pennsylvania that found excessive nitrate levels in a municipal water supply,” per the Times. “Nitrates can sap oxygen from blood and, when found in high levels in drinking water, are linked to ‘blue baby syndrome,’ in which infants struggle to deliver enough oxygen to their bodies.”
“Right now, E.P.A. is not monitoring any of that,” McFadden told the Times. “Things are falling through the cracks.”
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Image credit: "EPA Union Rallies OUtside DC Headquarters," AFGE © 2018, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/