clearn.png
Tuesday November 24th, 2020 5:13AM

Federal work at Superfund sites suspended during shutdown

By The Associated Press
Related Articles
  Contact Editor

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The government shutdown has suspended federal cleanups at Superfund sites around the nation and forced the cancellation of public hearings, deepening the mistrust and resentment of surrounding residents who feel people in power long ago abandoned them to live among the toxic residue of the country's factories and mines.

"We are already hurting, and it's just adding more fuel to the fire," says 40-year-old Keisha Brown. Her home is in a community nestled among plants that turn coal into carbon-rich fuel and other factories on Birmingham's north side.

The mostly African-American community has been forced to cope with high levels of arsenic, lead and other contaminants in the soil that the Environmental Protection Agency has been scraping up and carting away, house by house.

As President Donald Trump and Congress battle over Trump's demand for a wall on the southern U.S. border, the 3-week-old partial government shutdown 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."

EPA's shutdown plans said the agency would evaluate about 800 Superfund sites to see how many could pose an immediate threat. As an example of that kind of threat, it cited an acid leak from a mine that could threaten the public water supply. That's the hazard at Northern California's Iron Mountain mine, where EPA workers help prevent an unending flow of lethally acidic runoff off the Superfund site from spilling into rivers downstream.

Practically speaking, said Bonnie Bellow, a former EPA official who worked on Superfund public outreach at the agency, the impact of the stoppage of work at sites across the nation "wholly depends" on the length of the shutdown.

"Unless there is immediate risk like a storm, a flood, a week or two of slowdowns is not going to very likely affect the cleanup at the site," Bellow said.

In north Birmingham, Brown said it's been a couple of weeks since she's spotted any EPA crews at people's houses. It was unclear if state workers or contractors were continuing work.

But long before the shutdown began, Brown harbored doubts the cleanup was working anyway.

"My main concern is the health of the people out here," said Brown, who has asthma. "All of us are sick, and we've got to function on medicine every day."

In terms of time, the federal government shutdown is a chronological blip in the long history of the site — which includes ethics charges in a local bribery scandal to block federal cleanup efforts — but adds to the uncertainty in an area where residents feel forgotten and betrayed.

At the EPA, the shutdown has furloughed the bulk of the agency's roughly 14,000 employees. It also means the EPA isn't getting most of the daily stream of environmental questions and tips from the public. Routine inspections aren't happening. State, local and private emails to EPA officials often get automated messages back promising a response when the shutdown ends.

In Montana, for instance, state officials this month found themselves fielding calls from a tribal member worried about drinking water with a funny look to it, said Kristi Ponozzo, public-policy director at that state's Department of Environmental Quality. The EPA normally provides tribes with technical assistance on water supplies.

With most EPA colleagues idled, Ponozzo said, her agency also had to call off an environmental review meeting for a mining project, potentially delaying the project.

But it's the agency's work at Superfund sites — lessening the threat from old nuclear-weapons plants, chemical factories, mines and other entities — that gets much of the attention.

Absent imminent peril, it would be up to state governments or contractors to continue any cleanup during the shutdown "up to the point that additional EPA direction or funding is needed," the EPA said in a statement.

"Sites where cleanup activities have been stopped or shut down will be secured until cleanup activities are able to commence when the federal government reopens," the agency said.

For federal Superfund sites in Michigan, the shutdown means there are no EPA colleagues to consult, said Scott Dean, a spokesman for that state's Department of Environmental Quality.

At Michigan Superfund sites, day-to-day field operations were continuing since private contractors do most of the on-the-ground work, Dean said.

Bellow, the former EPA official, said the cancellation of hearings about Superfund sites posed immediate concerns.

In East Chicago, Indiana, for example, the EPA called off a planned public hearing set for last Wednesday to outline how the agency planned to clean up high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil.

The EPA has proposed a seven-month, $26.5 million cleanup that includes treating and removing tainted soil from the area, where a lead smelter was located.

During a public meeting Nov. 29, some residents complained that the EPA's approach would leave too much pollution in place. Others didn't get a chance to speak and were hoping to do so at the meeting this week, said Debbie Chizewer, a Northwestern University environmental attorney who represents community groups in the low-income area.

The EPA announced the cancellation in an online notice and gave no indication that it would be rescheduled.

Leaders of the East Chicago Calumet Community Advisory Group asked for a new hearing date and an extension of a Jan. 14 public comment deadline in a letter to the EPA's regional Superfund division.

Calls by The Associated Press to the agency's regional office in Chicago this week were not answered.

Local critics fear the EPA will use the delay caused by the shutdown as justification for pushing ahead with a cleanup strategy they consider flawed, Chizewer said, even though the agency has designated the affected area as an "environmental justice community," a low-income community of color that has been disproportionately harmed by pollution.

The EPA has a "special obligation" when dealing with such communities, Chizewer said. "This would be an example of shutting them out for no good reason."

In North Birmingham, former longtime neighborhood resident Charlie Powell said most of the people living in and around the Superfund site had already "just got tired and fed up."

Powell left the area but started a group called PANIC, People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination. He said he believes money would be better spent helping residents move away from the pollution.

"Can I say hell?" Powell said when asked what residents have been through.

___

This story has been corrected to reflect that Keisha Brown's home is not a wood-frame home.

___

Knickmeyer reported from Washington. Associated Press writers John Flesher in Traverse City, Michigan, and Matthew Brown in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.

___

For AP's complete coverage of the U.S. government shutdown: https://apnews.com/GovernmentShutdown

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP National News, AP Online National News, Top General short headlines, AP Online Headlines - Washington, AP Online Congress News, AP Business
© Copyright 2020 AccessWDUN.com
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
The Latest: Neighbor says she didn't see teen near cabin
A neighbor says she and her husband had problems years ago with the man suspected of kidnapping a Wisconsin teenager and killing her parents
11:42AM ( 8 minutes ago )
The Latest: US withdrawal from Syria so far limited to cargo
A U.S. defense official says no American troops have withdrawn yet from Syria, but some military cargo has been pulled out
11:40AM ( 11 minutes ago )
Trump closer to declaring emergency; 800,000 won't get paid
President Donald Trump is edging closer to declaring a national emergency to fund his long-promised border wall
11:38AM ( 13 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
EU offers UK helping hand, but no reopening of Brexit deal
A top European Union official says the bloc is trying to help Britain's prime minister avoid a no-deal departure of the U.K. from the bloc, but insists there cannot be any renegotiation of the Brexit deal
11:14AM ( 36 minutes ago )
California rookie officer fatally shot responding to crash
A 22-year-old police officer who had been on the job only a few weeks was shot and killed by a suspect who opened fire as she was investigating a three-car crash, authorities in Northern California said
11:10AM ( 41 minutes ago )
Thai police: Saudi asylum seeker is flying to Canada
Police in Thailand say a Saudi asylum seeker who fled alleged abuse by her family is leaving Bangkok and will fly to Canada
11:07AM ( 43 minutes ago )
AP National News
Ex-Nissan chair Ghosn indicted for alleged breach of trust
Ex-Nissan chair Ghosn indicted for alleged breach of trust
9:50AM ( 2 hours ago )
Trump says changes coming on high-tech visas
President Donald Trump says changes are coming in the way that the U.S. handles H1-B visas, which allow American companies to bring high-tech and other skilled workers into the U.S. from abroad
9:48AM ( 2 hours ago )
Wisconsin girl missing since parents' October deaths found
Investigators are expected to divulge more details Friday about how they located a Wisconsin teenager missing for three months alive and took a suspect into custody.
9:41AM ( 2 hours ago )
Top General short headlines
Greek state school teachers clash with riot police in Athens
Protesting Greek school teachers have clashed with police in central Athens during a demonstration against government plans for hiring new teachers
11:13AM ( 38 minutes ago )
Prominent figure quits German far-right party for new group
A once-prominent figure in the far-right Alternative for Germany has left the party after a falling-out and has reportedly founded a new group
9:44AM ( 2 hours ago )
The Latest: Miami airport to close terminal amid shutdown
Miami International Airport is closing a terminal this weekend due to the partial government shutdown because security screeners have been calling in sick at twice the airport's normal rate
8:57AM ( 2 hours ago )
AP Online Headlines - Washington
The Latest: Trump moves closer to emergency declaration
President Donald Trump took the government shutdown fight to the Mexican border on Thursday, edging closer to declaring a national emergency to fund his long-promised border wall.
11:04PM ( 12 hours ago )
At the border, Trump moves closer to emergency declaration
Trump threatens to declare national emergency to circumvent Congress if he can't reach a deal with Democrats to fund his promised border wall as he headed to the U.S.-Mexico border
9:59PM ( 13 hours ago )
California governor offers $144B budget, sees big surplus
California Gov. Gavin Newsom released a state budget proposal that seemingly does it all _ boosts spending toward his ambitious campaign promises and sets aside significant contributions toward debts and savings
9:22PM ( 14 hours ago )
AP Online Congress News
EU OKs Poland's wild boar slaughter to fight swine disease
The European Union's executive body has supported Poland's massive killing of wild boar as a way of protecting farm pigs and meat production from the deadly African swine fever
11:05AM ( 45 minutes ago )
GM raises 2018 forecast, predicts stronger 2019 earnings
General Motors strengthened its pretax profit estimate for 2018 and predicted even stronger performance for 2019 as it executives made a presentation to investor on Friday.
10:48AM ( 1 hour ago )
Italian fashion houses get refashioned for future growth
To stay on trend, Italian fashion houses are refashioning themselves for future growth
10:32AM ( 1 hour ago )
AP Business
The Latest: Neighbor says she didn't see teen near cabin
A neighbor says she and her husband had problems years ago with the man suspected of kidnapping a Wisconsin teenager and killing her parents
11:42AM ( 8 minutes ago )
The Latest: US withdrawal from Syria so far limited to cargo
A U.S. defense official says no American troops have withdrawn yet from Syria, but some military cargo has been pulled out
11:40AM ( 11 minutes ago )
Trump closer to declaring emergency; 800,000 won't get paid
President Donald Trump is edging closer to declaring a national emergency to fund his long-promised border wall
11:38AM ( 13 minutes ago )
Wisconsin man, 21, arrested in teen's abduction
Authorities say they have jailed a 21-year-old man on kidnapping and homicide charges in the October killing of a Wisconsin couple and abduction of their teen daughter, who was found alive
11:34AM ( 16 minutes ago )
US official says withdrawal from Syria has begun
After days of conflicting statements about Trump's Syria withdrawal, US military says it has begun to pull out equipment
11:33AM ( 17 minutes ago )