Federal Shutdown May Have Far Reaching Implications for Superfund

As the federal government shutdown enters its fourth week, environmental cleanups are starting to feel the effects. Parts of the government have been closed since Dec. 22, which has left about 800,000 federal workers furloughed or working without pay. The Environmental Protection Agency is included in the shutdown, and the EPA has stopped federal work on Superfund sites except for cases where the administration deems "there is an imminent threat to the safety of human life or to the protection of property."

The EPA released their shutdown contingency plan on December 31st and it includes some details of those still on the job. They estimate that around 800 employees will remain active because they are necessary for the protection of life and property. The document gives samples of such situations: “For example: if ceasing the operation of an acid mine drainage treatment plan would cause a release to a stream that provided drinking water to a community; the agency would consider that situation to pose an imminent threat. A second example is an emergency removal response to a situation posing an imminent threat to human health.”

The document goes on to detail which researchers may be exempted and may continue their work with pay.  The EPA maintains 29 program and regional laboratories across the continental United States, performing a variety of toxicological and other tasks. Only those employees needed to ensure critical operating requirements are exempted, such as those who are caring for animals used in testing.

Some other exemptions are made, but for the most part, the EPA is shut down. Local Remedial Project Manager Nikia Green is one of those furloughed. He has cancelled all meetings with local groups and a recent request for an interview garnered an automatic response stating he would be out of the office for the duration of the shutdown. It is difficult to ascertain what impacts this is having, but it is safe to assume the negotiations toward a consent decree have been halted.

There have been efforts to reopen the EPA. The House approved legislation that would fund and reopen the Interior Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Forest Service in an 240-179 vote on Friday. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not bring any of the bills up to a vote in the Senate until there is a deal between Trump and Democrats on the president’s demand for funding the border wall.

There are other sites in the state experiencing the shutdown, as well. Smurfit-Stone is another Superfund site downstream in Frenchtown, a defunct paper mill that has contamination that includes dioxins and furans. This site was only recently listed and is still in the initial stages of investigation.

It is a large site at around 3200 acres, with over 900 acres of unlined ponds used to store wastewater from the pulp mill that operated until 2010. Those ponds sit directly adjacent to the river, and many in the community are concerned at the possibility of contamination.

The Community Action Group associated with Smurfit-Stone site held a meeting early in January hoping to hear an update on sampling that has been done. But with the shutdown, Project Manager Allie Archer was unable to attend. This is the second month they have been put off, and with the duration of the shutdown uncertain, the next scheduled meeting with the EPA isn’t until March.

This left the group, and the community, anxious for answers. There are many unsettled issues at the site, including the extent of contamination and the stability of berms separating the contaminants from the Clark Fork River. Last year’s flooding raised concerns and an interim plan was put in place, but community members are awaiting a more solid plan.

Other sampling and analysis are in progress as well, including that of live fish from the area. Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries biologist David Schmetterling said fish collected months ago were still in a freezer in the EPA’s Denver lab, one of those that has been shuttered. It is unknown when the EPA will deliver those results, and even more uncertain with the shutdown.

Missoula county commissioners are also anxious to get answers, they sent a letter to Archer and the EPA requesting a mid-January meeting for an update. Last spring, commissioners accused the EPA of failing to address human and ecological health concerns, stating that “the current risk assessments do not reflect the actual risk at the site due to insufficient testing.”

But with the shutdown halting all progress, Missoula and Butte will have to wait to see how things shake out. No one knows how long the shutdown will last, or how the interruption will affect ongoing work. Everyone seems to agree they would rather see these superfund sites getting the attention they require.

I’m Dave Hutchins reporting for KBMF