About a week after the start of the partial government shutdown last month, Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel emailed Environmental Protection Agency officials about what the lapse in funding meant for them and other residents of Bridgeton, Mo. who live near a nuclear waste dump.
The pair of activists said they were told they would no longer be able to reach officials they normally spoke with at the EPA’s regional office near Kansas City. They worried about what would happen if there were an accident at the nearby landfill contaminated with radioactive waste dating back to the World War II-era Manhattan Project. Just as recently as November, a surface fire broke out near the nuclear dump.
Steven Cook, a top-level Trump official at the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Response, assured them that the agency’s emergency spill line would still be manned throughout the shutdown. But, he added in an email Chapman provided to The Post, “Please be mindful that we may be limited in our ability to provide a substantive response depending on the issue involved.”
Communities living near toxic Superfund sites like West Lake in Missouri feel on edge and in the dark during the shutdown that has paralyzed normal functions at agencies like the EPA. The shutdown is cramping efforts by Trump officials to revitalize the nearly 40-year-old Superfund program -- designed to clean up more than 1,300 hazardous sites around the country -- and put many residents waiting years for a federal response at ease.
"It's so crazy that a site can be listed like ours, and then overnight we lose contact with the federal agency responsible for overseeing it," Chapman said in an interview. "It's like they have officially just gone away."
The shutdown threatens to fray already strained relations between affected communities and the federal government, which residents often see as too sluggish in its cleanup efforts.
“In the world of Superfund, the community relationships with the agency are always a big issue," said Peter deFur, an environmental consultant working on Superfund issues.
During the shutdown, the agency is unable to move forward with federally managed cleanups or plan new ones. Work can continue on cleanup projects led by states or companies, but only “up to the point that additional EPA direction or funding is needed,” said EPA spokesman John Konkus.
Agency employees also cannot hold or attend meetings with community members to let them know what is going on. One of those communities left wondering is the heavily African-American and Hispanic city of East Chicago, Ind. where the site of a former public housing complex is laden with lead.
Earlier this month, the EPA had to cancel a public hearing on its $26.5 million plan to dig up and haul out contaminated soil.
“It does not make any sense to cancel it and not reschedule it,” said Thomas Frank, an East Chicago environmental activist. “That doesn't make sense. There are people in the community that would benefit from getting their voices heard.”
And the effects of the shutdown will stretch past the point at which President Trump and congressional Democrats end their impasse over border wall funding. Before the shutdown, the agency was forced to siphon money away from its limited budget to contain some sites and prevent conditions from getting worse while the government is off the job.
“You're putting further stress on the limited pot of money and the ability to clean up sites,” said Mathy Stanislaus, who oversaw the Superfund program during the Barack Obama administration.
Throughout the shutdown, EPA officials have repeatedly emphasized that it can act in the event of a disaster at a Superfund site. The agency’s shutdown contingency plan says that emergency responders have the legal authority to do so and that the agency would evaluate more than 800 Superfund sites to identify potential threats to human health, such as acid leaks into drinking water supply.
“The Superfund Program will continue to respond at sites where there is an imminent threat to the safety of human life or to the protection of property,” EPA’s Konkus said.
The EPA’s acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, noted that as well during a Senate hearing Wednesday. He also reiterated the Trump administration’s commitment to the Superfund program.
“Many of these sites have languished for years, even decades,” Wheeler said. “How can these Americans prosper if they cannot live, learn and work in healthy environments? The answer is simple: They cannot.”
On that point, left-leaning environmentalists and the Trump administration actually agree. But for residents near neglected Superfund sites, the shutdown still feels like the same old story of unkept promises.
“In economically disparaged communities of color,” said Frank of East Chicago, “it's as if the government has been shut down for 40 years.”
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— Alaska has more at stake than any other state: More federal employees have been sidelined in Alaska than in any other state. Part of the trouble is that 61 percent of the state is government land managed by five different federal agencies, The Post’s Andrew Van Dam reports. “The state’s main industries, including fishing, tourism and oil and gas, all depend on the day-to-day actions of federal workers and regulators,” he writes. “The fisheries have so far avoided major disruption, despite a few close calls. Most boats are still getting by on licenses and inspections which occurred before the shutdown. But time is running out.”
— Environmental groups want pause on oil and gas work during shutdown: One day after House Democrats called on the Trump administration to reverse the move to bring back furloughed employees to work on oil and gas development, more than 30 environmental groups doubled down, calling on the Interior Department to “promptly postpone any and all oil and gas lease sales” during the shutdown.
— Dems question website deactivation: Three top-ranking Democratic lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee called on the EPA for more information about why the Energy Star program’s website has been disabled amid the shutdown. Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), Diana DeGette (Colo.) and Paul Tonko (N.Y.) want to know why the Energy Star website is down while the rest of the EPA’s website is still active.
— Puerto Rico governor rips White House over "completely false" remarks: Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) admonished the Trump administration for reportedly considering cutting off emergency aid to the island and for rejecting food stamp funding for the U.S. territory as it continues to recover from Hurricane Maria. The House approved $600 million toward food stamps for Puerto Rico this week, but the White House in a statement called it “excessive and unnecessary” and said he would sink the package, The Post’s Jeff Stein reports. In a Facebook video, Rosselló suggested the Trump administration is “working towards eliminating recovery dollars for Puerto Rico based on completely false and inaccurate information.” “I’m making a public request to you, Mr. President, to meet me so that I can correct the ill-informed advice and disconcerting notions you are getting on Puerto Rico,” he said.
—“Among economists, this is not controversial”: A group of 45 top economists from across the political spectrum is calling for a carbon tax in the United States, calling it the “most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emission at the scale and speed that is necessary.” The group, which includes former chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers and former Federal Reserve chairs Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke and Janet L. Yellen, called climate change a “serious problem” needing “immediate national action,” in a letter published this week in the Wall Street Journal.
What a carbon tax would do: “The tax would add to the price of any good or service that uses carbon, especially fossil fuels,” The Post’s Heather Long writes. “It means energy bills, gas and flying would cost more, at least at first. But the economists call for the government to return all the revenue raised from the tax directly to U.S. citizens, with a goal of effectively paying people to help address climate change.”
— Floating ocean garbage collector failed: During its first four months it’s been at sea, the first garbage collector launched by Dutch nonprofit Ocean Cleanup failed to collect any trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, The Post’s Ben Guarino reports. He adds scientists unaffiliated with the project are skeptical about whether it's possible for the system or future versions to do what’s intended. “When the feasibility study came out, the press was really excited about this,” Kim Martini, an oceanographer and science communicator told The Post. “But a lot of scientists had been saying, ‘Well, you know, this is really hard and probably not going to happen.'”
Why it didn't work: "The Ocean Cleanup may be relying on simplified physics that do not account for small-scale currents... Zoomed way out, the Pacific gyre rotates predictably, like the swirl of a giant toilet. But, close up, the region is a jumble of very tiny eddies... That dance may not propel the system as fast as it needs to go."
— Trump admin to start lithium recycling research: The Energy Department will start researching lithium battery recycling as a way to reduce dependence on foreign sources for the metal. A new research center will examine ways to reuse lithium-ion batteries that are commonly in laptop computers and electric vehicles, Reuters reports. Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced the plan at a Bipartisan Policy Center event and said the efforts will “leverage the power of competition and the resources of the private sector, universities, and the national laboratories to ... bolster economic growth, strengthen our energy security, and improve the environment.”
- Johns Hopkins University’s China Studies and Energy, Resources & Environment Programs holds a forum on sustainable transport and urban prosperity in China on Jan. 23.
- The Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy is scheduled to hold a call on energy efficiency and resiliency on Jan. 24.
- The United States Energy Association holds its annual State of the Energy Industry Forum on Jan. 24.
- The World Resources Institute is scheduled to hold an event on driving equitable climate transitions on Jan. 31.
—How long does it take to clean up one national park restroom? Watch this two-hour time lapse published by Death Valley park rangers cleaning to find out.