Could America do without the Environmental Protection Agency?

| 16th October 2013

Would the U.S. environment suffer if the EPA was shutdown permanently?

Personnel at the EPA have been heavily impacted by the ongoing shutdown, leading some commentators to question the necessity of the government agency post-shutdown. Ben Whitford reports....
If laws are't being enforced, then for all practical purposes they aren't there

With the U.S. government shutdown entering its third week, conservatives have finally found something to smile about: America's environmental watchdogs have been hard-hit by the shutdown.

"There is some good news out of the shutdown, the EPA can't issue new regulations," tweeted Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, a Republican who voted for the bill that sparked the shutdown.

Blackburn is right: while some federal agencies, such as the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, are still operating at near full strength, more than 93% of the Environmental Protection Agency's 16,205 employees have been declared non-essential and sent home.

That's left the bulk of the agency's activities, including its regulatory division, on hold, with the remaining skeleton crew permitted to respond only to the most immediate and urgent threats to public health and safety.

Eliminating or radically downsizing the EPA has been a key part of the right-wing platform in recent years, and Fox's talking heads were swift to frame the agency's temporary closure as a stepping stone towards its permanent abolition.

"It takes only 6.6% of the EPA to actually keep things running ... This raises valid questions about how many people actually need to come back," said anchorwoman Martha MacCallum. "The Earth won't notice the difference if you shut the EPA for ten years," promised libertarian pundit John Stossel, suggesting that with environmental rules already on the books, the agency itself is essentially redundant.

Predictably, environmentalists and current and former EPA staffers are less enthusiastic about the shutdown. One big concern is that unscrupulous companies will take advantage of the EPA's closure to dump pollutants into America's air, water and soil.

Experts say that while companies dumping waste on land will likely be caught in the long run, firms that vent filth into the air or water during the shutdown will likely never be held accountable, because the waste will have dispersed by the time furloughed inspectors go back to work.

That leaves the public relying on companies' good faith - something that historically has been in rather short supply, says Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "Both people and companies will cut corners if they can get away with it," he says. "If laws are't being enforced, then for all practical purposes they aren't there."

The EPA also now lacks the capability to respond effectively to a major environmental disaster, says Joel Mintz, an environmental law professor at Nova Southeastern University. While the agency could theoretically recall workers in the event of an environmental catastrophe, in practice it would be difficult to muster an effective response to a rapidly unfolding disaster. "If there's something like the BP spill ... it'll take some extra time to un-furlough or bring back to the job EPA employees," Mintz says. "It's a risky situation."

The shutdown is also impeding the EPA's ability to manage existing pollution hotspots, with cleanup operations suspended at more than 500 heavily contaminated Superfund sites. That's a greater impact than was seen during Clinton-era shutdowns, says Elliott Laws, who led the EPA's Superfund program during the 1990s, because the trust fund used to finance earlier cleanups is now depleted. That leaves the EPA dependent on cash from Congress, giving the agency no option but to padlock all but the most dangerous Superfund sites until the government reopens.

With winter approaching, many heavily polluted areas will now likely be left untouched until next year, when some will face expensive startup costs that could otherwise have been avoided. "It's tremendously frustrating for communities," Laws says. "There are going to be ripple effects through the program, and increased costs across the board, because of this."

Ironically, the EPA's rule-writing efforts, so loathed by conservatives, will likely be one of the few agency functions to emerge from the shutdown more or less unscathed. Nobody's working on new regulations during the shutdown, says former EPA climate chief Dina Kruger, but when everyone goes back to work, it will be possible to accelerate review processes and ensure that new rules are published on schedule.

That means the shutdown shouldn't derail, or even significantly delay, the EPA's pioneering effort to curb power-plant CO2 emissions, Kruger says. "The point at which power-plant regulations are right now, if they can get back to work quickly they shouldn't be significantly delayed," she says.

Kruger, a veteran of the 1990s shutdowns, says the closure's enduring impact could be on employee morale. "It's demoralising, there's no doubt about that," she says. "I think that for talented and dedicated people, it's very disturbing to see that you can just be told you can't come to work, and not get a pay-check, through no fault of your own." That might make it harder for the EPA to retain young, talented workers, or to persuade idealistic college graduates to enter the public sector, she says.

It's certainly frustrating to sit around at home while important environmental work goes undone, says Karen Kellen, a furloughed enforcement lawyer in the EPA's Denver office. Still worse, though, Kellen says, is the knowledge that EPA staff - already spread too thin after months of budget cuts and furloughs - will face an overwhelming backlog of work when the agency finally reopens.

With key environmental inspections already being left undone, Kellen says, staffers will struggle to catch up - and Americans will learn the hard way what it means to do without environmental oversight. "There are more and more pieces of the puzzle that'll be missed," Kellen says. "That increases the possibility of some disaster somewhere, some outbreak from dirty drinking water, or some contaminant getting into the air. We're already behind the eight ball, and this just makes it harder."

Ben Whitford is the Ecologist's US correspondent. He can be reached at Follow him @ben_whitford

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