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Anti-EPA partisans get their shutdown (almost), but what’s the difference?

Law 360 dug a little deeper into the impact of EPA furloughs for a report published Monday. 

At this writing the shutdown's only foreseeable impact on new EPA regulations is the possibility of a brief delay in finalization of its long-awaited and overdue rules on carbon emissions from new coal-fired power plants, which entered the public comment phase on Sept. 20.

Just for a moment the other day I wished I were writing and publishing Earth Journal in the Tennessee district of U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the better to call attention to one of the most howlingly dumb comments yet made about her caucus’ suspension of federal governance:

“There is some good news out of the shutdown, the EPA can’t issue new regulations.”

I suppose Blackburn’s tweet might resound with the twits who imagine the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s chief function to be churning out new, job-killing obstacles to American enterprise on a daily basis.  

But at this writing the shutdown’s only foreseeable impact on new EPA regulations is the possibility of a brief delay in finalization of its long-awaited and overdue rules on carbon emissions from new coal-fired power plants, which entered the public comment phase on Sept. 20.

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Savvier citizens might wonder instead about what the shutdown might mean for EPA’s protection of public health — say, in the vicinity of  some 800 toxic brownfields that have come under EPA jurisdiction through the Superfund law. The answer apparently, and hopefully, is: Maybe not so much.

Although only about 1,000 of EPA’s 16,000 employees are on the job right now, that is said to be more than sufficient to provide continuing supervision at about 300 Superfund sites where the situation is sufficiently serious that “a failure to maintain operations would pose an imminent threat to human life,” in the words of EPA’s policy for limited operation. Cleanup activities at the other 500 or so have been suspended.

These figures have been reported in several places, but I happened onto them at Law 360, which dug a little deeper into the impact of EPA furloughs for a report published Monday. For example, it observed that because much of the cleanup activity in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is financed by penalties BP is paying, the work can continue despite the shutdown.

Delegation of regulation

Even at the permitting level, Law 360 found, most applications will be unaffected “because the EPA has largely delegated its permitting authority to state and local authorities.” However,  

There will be a great reduction in site visits, inspections and testing by EPA employees during the shutdown. Regional offices — the “boots on the ground” —  simply do not have enough employees to maintain routine activities. The Region 5 office in Chicago, for example, has retained only 59 out of its 1,167 employees. [That’s the regional office that covers Minnesota.]

The EPA will not bring any new enforcement matters during the shutdown that do not relate to an imminent threat. Ongoing matters will mostly continue, but some may be prolonged.

Because the Justice Department, which gets to make these calls, considers all criminal litigation involving EPA to be “essential to the safety of human life and the protection of property,” those cases will not be put off during the shutdown. But attorneys working on civil cases — the vast majority of EPA’s enforcement work — were advised to seek postponements.

One wonders if even Rep. Blackburn would consider it good news that the shutdown’s chief impact on EPA is to limit its ability to make sure various public health and safety rules already in place are being followed, and to postpone resolution of enforcement actions against lawbreakers who are already in trouble, and whose lawyers have the meter running.

As a former EPA lawyer now in private practice told Reuters last week, “This is a decidedly bad thing for the country. Everybody pays, including the regulated community.”

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Starving the national parks

Because they’re so well-loved and telegenic, our locked-down national parks and monuments have gotten prime placement in TV news coverage of the shutdown. But the impact goes far beyond a bunch of spoiled vacation trips.

Here are some impacts as measured by Fox News, which isn’t exactly hostile to the shutdown strategy itself:

The National Park System hosts more than 282 million people per year, and more than 715,000 people per day in October. Those visitors spend about $76 million per day in communities near national parks. …

[The shutdown is also] costing the National Park Service an estimated $450,000 per day in lost revenue from fees collected at entry stations and fees paid for in-park activities such as cave tours, boat rides and camping.

The figure for economic impact on gateway communities is actually higher than calculations offered by the National Parks Conservation Association, which pointed out that the parks’ own revenue losses during the shutdown

[C]ompound the challenges of budget cuts over the last three years for the National Park Service. The budget to operate national parks, in today’s dollars, is already 13 percent less than it was three years ago, a loss of $315 million.

This cut forced national park superintendents to delay the opening of parks or park roads; close visitor centers, picnic areas, and campgrounds; decrease the number of rangers to protect and maintain parks; and limit the number of educational programs. 

Looking beyond the parks to other lands supervised by federal agencies — like the Bureau of Land Management, which has furloughed more than 10,000 employees — High Country News asked the rhetorical question, “How do the feds close a million square miles of public land in the event of a government shutdown?”

The answer: “They don’t.” During the 1996 shutdown,

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[T]he Western Watersheds Project received reports that some Idaho ranchers took advantage of the situation, turning their cattle out to forage on land that was supposed to be off-limits. … This week, with just 600 BLM employees left to patrol 264 million acres of wide-open Western land, similar fears have emerged. 

“Absolutely I would say we’re worried,” says Travis Bruner, public lands director for the Western Watersheds Project. “Livestock trespassing and other illegal activities happen with regularity even when the Forest Service and BLM are on duty.”

Along with cattle trespassing and its attendant habitat degradation, Bruner and others worry about illegal off-roading, timber harvesting, and the thieving of cultural and historic artifacts, as well as, to a lesser extent, poaching. Marijuana farmers who illegally grow pot and divert water on Forest Service land might benefit from the shutdown, too.

Self-inspection on food safety

As the shutdown loomed, I wondered how it would affect operations of the Food and Drug Administration at one particularly crucial crossroads of environment and public health: food safety inspections. The answer again appears to be, not much. From The Wall Street Journal on Saturday:

Consumer safety advocates are sounding the alarm now that fewer government officials are at work to inspect food in light of the shutdown. But in reality, the government wasn’t doing much of that in the first place.

The Food & Drug Administration only inspects a minute percentage of manufactured and imported food, conducting sporadic investigations at random. Most of the food recalls it coordinates are caught by the food companies themselves, rather than the FDA.

“When it comes to imported food, say the FDA was randomly screening 2% of low-risk shipments – going down to 1.8% because of the shutdown is a relatively meaningless change,” said Ben England, an attorney who worked at the FDA for 17 years and founded the law firm and consultancy “The government is not protecting the consumer; the industry is.”

Whether that’s good news or bad from Week 2 of the shutdown, I leave to your consideration — along with conclusions on how these impacts fit the Tea Party vision of America as a victim of serial strangulation by federal regulators.

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Bonus link: For a long, opinionated and interesting list at how a prolonged shutdown might affect U.S. energy innovation, see this blog by Matthew Stepp at The Energy Collective.

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Asian carp tonight: Duane Chapman, one of the nation’s top authorities on the threats posed by invasive Asian carp, will give a free public lecture this evening on “The Biology and Management of Asian Carp: Lessons for Minnesota.”  The talk, whose sponsors include the Freshwater Society and the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center, will be at 7 p.m. in the Student Center theater on the university’s St. Paul campus. More information at