‘Misleading’: The New York Times Omitted Key Details About EPA’s Shutdown Woes

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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  • The New York Times put out a misleading report on the halt in EPA inspections during the shutdown.
  • The Times neglected to mention that states carry out the vast majority of inspections.
  • “Most U.S. environmental laws work through cooperative federalism,” reads the Environmental Council of the States’s website. 

The New York Times’ claim that furloughed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials have not been able to complete “hundreds” of inspections during the government shutdown creates a false impression of where the vast majority of U.S. environmental enforcement takes place.

The Times’ reported Wednesday the ongoing government shutdown has halted the “most important public health activities, the inspections of chemical factories, power plants, oil refineries, water treatment plants, and thousands of other industrial sites for pollution violations.”

While it’s true EPA halted inspections of regulated facilities, The Times’ story left out an extremely important detail that left readers with the impression the industry has free reign to pollute the air and water.

The Times neglected to mention a key part of environmental compliance and enforcement: state regulators carry out the vast majority of inspections. (RELATED: Trump Wants $5.7 Billion For The Wall. One Month Ago, Chuck Schumer Wanted Much More Than That For Green Energy Subsidies)

Also, EPA’s compliance office tends to conduct most inspections in the spring and summer months, not in winter, according to EPA officials who spoke to The Daily Caller News Foundation on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

In all, states are responsible for carrying out more than 98 percent of federal environmental programs designed to protect air and water quality and ensure safe disposal of waste, according to the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS).

Podium awaits the arrival of U.S. EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler to address staff at EPA Headquarters in Washington

An empty podium awaits the arrival of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler to address staff at EPA headquarters in Washington, U.S., July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ting Shen.

“Most U.S. environmental laws work through cooperative federalism. That means the federal government sets national environmental standards while states implement those standards within their borders,” reads ECOS’s website.

For example, all but three states and the District of Columbia are authorized to implement the Clean Drinking Water Act, according to EPA information. Forty-nine states take the lead on enforcement under the Safe Drinking Water Act and 48 states are authorized to implement the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which governs solid and hazardous waste disposal.

EPA maintains a public database called Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO), which, among other things, tracks on enforcement and inspections carried out by federal and state officials.

In almost every regulatory category — ECHO’s data for drinking water facilities doesn’t differentiate between federal and state inspections — state officials carry out the vast majority of inspections and enforcement actions.

For example, EPA officials inspected 1,232 facilities to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act in 2018 while states inspected 30,368 last year, according to ECHO.


Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

It’s a similar story for enforcement actions taken against facilities that violated Clean Water Act requirements. EPA took 543 enforcement actions against facilities out of compliance, while states took 15,796 enforcement actions, according to ECHO.

EPA still has roughly 11,700 inspections every year, according to The Times. Inspections are carried out by the agency’s Office of Compliance and Enforcement (OECA).

The Times estimated “hundreds of such inspections may have already been canceled this year, with the potential for hundreds more to not take place should the shutdown continue for days or weeks more.”

The Times quoted one furloughed EPA inspector who gave the ominous quote: “Now there’s nobody out there to check if they’re complying.”

EPA Acting Administrator Wheeler arrives to address staff at EPA headquarters in Washington

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler shakes hands with an EPA staff member after delivering an address at EPA headquarters in Washington, U.S., July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ting Shen.

One EPA official took issue with The Times’ estimate of missed inspections, and noted that OECA conducts most of its inspections during spring and summer months, so right now is not the peak period for inspections.

“The speculation they had there, I would characterize it as misleading,” the official told TheDCNF.

Most of EPA’s roughly 600 environmental compliance officers are furloughed due to the ongoing government shutdown, which became the longest in history as of Saturday. The now 24-day partial shutdown was precipitated by a fight over funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Democratic lawmakers used The Times’ report to attack President Donald Trump, with Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey saying the ongoing shutdown “means toxic water and air for our communities.”

The Trump administration came under fire last year for a drop in environmental enforcement activities, continuing a trend that started under the Obama administration.

However, EPA criminal enforcement agents are still on the job and the agency has non-furloughed agents standing by for emergencies or if the agency sees an imminent threat to public health.

An EPA official told TheDCNF that The Times’ report gave a “false view of what EPA inspectors do.” EPA inspectors often comb through records compiled by regulated facilities or do walk-throughs.

“It’s not like they regularly go out and plug leaks,” the official said. “That rarely happens.”

“It takes time for EPA professionals to review this information,” including looking through reams of documentation of facilities’ emissions or discharges to see if they were in compliance, the official said.

EPA stayed open during the first week of the ongoing government shutdown, but was forced to close its doors and furlough most of its 15,000-strong workforce when their funding ran out in late December.

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