Shutdown halts federal work at Superfund sites
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The government shutdown has suspended federal cleanups at Superfund sites nationwide 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.
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.”
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.
Leaders of the East Chicago Calumet Community Advisory Group asked for a new hearing date.
Cleanup work on Keisha Brown’s home at a designated Superfund site is on hold.