Government Shutdown = Polluter Holiday?

Coal-fired power plant on Potomac River in Alexandria, VA (by NWF's Miles Grant)

The polluter agenda of using the current budget battle to hide a full-on rollback our nation’s basic public health and environmental laws is coming into full view with the government shutdown. First, there is the attempt to scuttle a budget deal unless there is the inclusion of policy riders that gut laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.  (See here and here). Second and even more nefarious, there is a willingness to go to the brink on trying to get those riders because a government shutdown amounts to a temporary polluter holiday.

Who’s Minding the Store?

As the budget battle continues, little attention is being paid to what a federal government shutdown might mean for safety of our air, water and land if government employees are forced home.  As Politico reported recently (requires subscription), a shutdown means that most of the Environmental Protection Agency’s  (EPA) 17,000 employees will be sent home. (Read EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s memo to staff here.)  Among these employees are the men and women who staff the varying EPA compliance offices across the country that make sure polluters are held accountable in meeting our environmental laws, including the safeguards for clean air and clean water.

While a shutdown may be forced by political ideology, the impacts on communities across the country would be very real. In Alexandria, VA, a coal-fired power plant sits on the banks of the Potomac River, not far from the U.S. Capitol and just a few miles from my home. I visited the plant today and wondered: If the EPA shuts down, who’ll be monitoring the air my children breathe?


Polluter Parade

While EPA often works in tandem with the states, there is little doubt that a government shutdown will, at least temporarily, short circuit the ability of the federal government to prevent a polluter parade.  The shutdown will put a hold on the inspections and monitoring activities of the EPA in places like local power plants and refineries. In FY 2010, the agency undertook 21,000 inspections and evaluations as part of its efforts to check on whether our laws were being upheld. This means, on average,  for every week the government shuts down over 400 federal polluter inspections and evaluations won’t take place. This could impact the air, water and environment in communities across the country.

Take for example Sections 113 and 114 of the Clean Air Act. These provisions authorize EPA to enforce penalties for violating the Act and allow representatives of the agency to enter power plants, refineries, and factories to inspect air pollution monitoring equipment and sample emissions to determine if the plant if complying with the law.  Through this authority EPA helps to ensure that existing laws and limits on such things as smog-causing air pollutants, hazardous air pollutants, ozone depleting chemicals, and asbestos are met.

Water Worries

And the Clean Air Act is just one law. Section 308 of the Clean Water Act allows EPA to inspect facilities subject to the Act.  Similar to the Clean Air Act, inspectors can look at records relating to whether water discharges meet the existing pollution limits, inspect any monitoring equipment or methods used to sample the effluent and monitor the operation of the facility. Another law, section 3007 of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) lets the EPA conduct inspections of any company that generates, stores, treats, transports, disposes of, or otherwise handles hazardous waste. The inspector can monitor or obtain samples of any hazardous waste or any waste containers.

You get the idea – when no one is home to ensure the laws are upheld, pollution happens.  As these maps depict, when the employees are working EPA already has a lot environmental violations to police.

How convenient for the polluters. Force our kids to breathe toxic air and drink contaminated water by either gutting the law or forcing the government to close so it can happen anyway.

Tell Congress to stop the stealth attack on America’s air, water and wildlife.