With more than 700 employees, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Philadelphia office is one of the biggest of the agency’s 10 regional offices.
They inspect businesses from Pennsylvania to Virginia to make sure they’re not polluting rivers or disposing of hazardous material incorrectly. They manage the cleanups of abandoned hazardous Superfund sites. And they’re involved in other similar situations, like the response to the water contamination that’s affected tens of thousands of residents in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
But only 30 employees have been working at the office at 17th and Arch Streets in Center City since Dec. 31, the day the EPA ran out of funding during the partial government shutdown.
According to its shutdown contingency plan, the EPA and its contractors will continue to monitor and clean up abandoned Superfund sites that “pose an imminent threat to human life," such as a site that could contaminate a town’s drinking water. (The EPA employees doing so, like other “essential” federal employees, are not getting paid.) The Philadelphia region is home to dozens of Superfund sites, including four that were on a “national priorities” list as of December 2017. The EPA did not respond to questions about which ones had been deemed imminent threats.
Still, those in Philadelphia who work for the EPA, an agency that has been under threat since President Donald Trump came into office, say that virtually stopping the agency’s operations poses a risk to public health and safety.
The shutdown means citizens can’t, for example, get information on a business that might be emitting noxious fumes, Marie Owens Powell, president of the EPA workers' union AFGE Local 3631, said this week. And it means businesses required to comply with EPA regulations can’t get answers.
Owens Powell, an underground-storage inspector for 17 years, said that prior to the shutdown she fielded daily calls from businesses asking how to comply with regulations, like how to dispose of certain types of materials.
With the shutdown, those businesses might have to spend extra money to hire an expert to make that determination or else face financial penalties down the line if they’re found to be breaking the law.
Then there are businesses that might see the shutdown as a window of reprieve from the EPA’s regulations, since inspectors aren’t conducting their normal enforcement.
Garth Connor, an environmental scientist who travels to states to inspect manufacturing and other industrial facilities, says he’s seen how companies cut corners to save money. He recalled a business owner in Richmond, Va., who didn’t want to spend $500 to dispose of every 55-gallon drum he had filled with hazardous waste. When Connor arrived for inspection, there were 20 of those drums on the property.
Another recent inspection sent Connor to a Pennsylvania manufacturer that discharged wastewater into the Susquehanna River but was using outdated equipment. Poorly treated water can impact drinking water and harm aquatic life.
“In general, we’re often sent to facilities that are struggling with compliance,” said Connor, 64. “Sometimes I’ll look at their equipment and say, ‘Whoa, man, this is really old.’”
When it comes to Superfund sites, the shutdown could delay the cleaning process, especially for those not deemed imminent risks. The EPA is constantly monitoring contamination levels from these sites to see how the cleanup is progressing, as well as keeping track of the cleanup work being done by private owners of Superfund sites, said Mindi Snoparsky, a geologist who works in the hazardous-site cleanup division.
Without this kind of routine monitoring, it’s possible that Snoparsky and her colleagues will miss an important change at the site, which would drive up costs for both the EPA and the businesses that own Superfund sites.
Angela McFadden, an environmental engineer in the Philadelphia region’s water protection division, said no one is monitoring the constant stream of pollutant data normally handled by the EPA. And no one would be on duty if there was spill into a waterway.
She wonders what would happen if there was a discharge like the one in June 2006, when Merck & Co. sent potassium thiocyanate into the Wissahickon Creek, which resulted in an extensive fish kill and the Philadelphia Water Department’s having to close a drinking water intake. Merck eventually agreed to a $20 million settlement.
“Right now, we can’t even go out and determine if there are industrial violations,” McFadden said. “We can’t even go and investigate.”