Federal Shutdown Becoming a Polluters Holiday
Humans and Wildlife at Risk by End of Critical Monitoring and Pollution Testing
Washington, DC — Important federal biological, pollution, and even food safety monitoring has been suspended as thousands of federal workers are furloughed and forbidden from working, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These interruptions create risks for both human health and environmental protection, extending even to endangered species.
The Food & Drug Administration has suspended most of its food inspections intended to prevent food-borne illnesses, although the agency is considering resuming some portion of screening.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has shut down some of its water testing laboratories, such as its regional lab in Georgia. States served by the Georgia lab, such as North Carolina, have stopped sending in water samples due to the closure, so water samples are not getting tested.
In addition, EPA work on pollution discharge permit issuance and compliance monitoring has also ceased. This means that no one is looking to check what is being dumped into our waters or to see if dischargers are exceeding permit limits – a situation PEER calls a “polluters holiday.”
“The government says that its employees are working where there is a threat to human health, but there is some confusion as to what work is exempted and what work is suspended,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, pointing out that most food safety inspections and water quality monitoring has stopped. “Federal agencies should not wait for people to get sick before resuming testing to prevent illnesses.”
Some shutdowns affect both human health and wildlife. For example, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite imagery is no longer available to monitor toxic red tide blooms off Florida’s coasts. Red tide poisoning has sickened swimmers but has also killed more than 200 threatened manatees in 2018.
The risks for wildlife are compounded by reopening nearly 40 national wildlife refuges for hunting access. PEER points out that this move is contrary to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s own Contingency Plan.
By contrast, cessation of FWS formal consultations under the Endangered Species Act on incidental take of wildlife allow injurious activities to proceed if FWS does not object within set time limits.
“Our Fish & Wildlife Service prioritizing hunting above wildlife protection is troubling, to say the least,” remarked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that hunting promotes neither human safety or resource protection, but may do just the opposite. “Our national investment in protecting our most vulnerable wildlife may be forfeit by cessation of monitoring during an extended shutdown, thus placing endangered species in further jeopardy.”