Federal work at Superfund sites suspended
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 AfricanAmerican 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.