Shutdown suspends federal cleanups at U.S. Superfund sites

A sign identifies the Superfund removal site on the property of a former high school in Birmingham, Ala., Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. Last User: APGBL\amthomas The partial government shutdown has forced suspension of federal work at the nation’s Superfund sites unless it is determined there is an “imminent threat” to life or property.(AP Photo/Kimberly Chandler)

WASHINGTON — The government shutdown has suspended federal cleanups at Superfund sites around the nation and forced the cancellation of public hearings.

According to the EPA, a Superfund is any site that has been contaminated “due to hazardous waste being dumped, left out in the open, or otherwise improperly managed.” There are several such sites in the Memphis metro area, including one at the former Custom Cleaners site on Southern.

It was designated an official Superfund site in 2017 after tests conducted at the site by the State of Tennessee and the EPA showed elevated levels of PCE have “impacted subsurface soil and groundwater.”

Related: EPA designates former dry cleaner as ‘Superfund’ site

As President Donald Trump and Congress battle over a wall on the southern U.S. border, the nearly 3-week-old partial government shutdown has stopped federal work on all of these 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 Superfund sites in the Memphis metro area. The yellow sites are the active NPL sites. (Photo: EPA)

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.

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.

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.

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