The federal shutdown has brought us stark images of a paralyzed government: congested crowds at airport gates, trash piling up in national parks. But there are many everyday consequences that we don’t see—like the neglect slowly creeping across the nation’s drinking-water infrastructure as the regulatory protections we so often take for granted start to evaporate.
And some efforts had barely gotten started. Just as the government was shutting down before the holidays, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a long-awaited action Federal Action Plan to Reduce Childhood Lead Exposure, in response to a decades-old scourge of lead contamination in water infrastructure and home environments. Although the plan did reiterate the government’s basic public responsibility to protect communities from lead hazards, environmentalists criticized the administration’s plan as a “missed opportunity” to set much-needed stricter standards on lead to address a massive public-health crisis.
And just after the plan was announced, the EPA went dark. According to the agency’s shutdown plan, all but “essential” workers are furloughed indefinitely during the “lapse in appropriations,” now dragging toward the one-month mark with about 13,000 staff off the job. Only about 900 are left to undertake basic maintenance of equipment and facilities and respond to critical emergencies. The agency’s skeleton staff is sustaining basic services to ensure “safety of human life or property.” But the ripple effects of the shutdown might be the most severe for the state agencies and organizations that carry out the agency’s routine monitoring work.
The shutdown adds more disorder to the government’s halting efforts to keep communities lead-free. As the top enforcer of the Safe Drinking Water Act and lead-safety protections in the “Lead and Copper” rule, the EPA sets regulatory standards and guidelines for federal and state pollution-control programs, though states typically handle the bulk of monitoring and enforcement. Nonetheless, with state regulators strained by limited funding and resources, the EPA remains a last line of defense for financial and technical support.
According to Kyla Bennett, director of the New England branch of the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, states usually send their water-monitoring samples to EPA laboratories. Currently, however, the agency simply “isn’t there to check the data or enforce violations.” For cases of major lead contamination, ordinarily, “if there is an imminent and substantial endangerment, with no action from state or local authorities, the EPA has authority to act. Clearly, this is not happening either.”
The complex regulatory framework already shows signs of fraying. Currently, 29 program and regional laboratories are not carrying out their normal functions, and have retained only enough staffing “as needed to ensure critical operating requirements.”
As a result, an EPA lab in Athens, Georgia, has suspended its routine water monitoring, according to E&E News. It is for now storing the water samples in a refrigerator, and reports that its funding, like that of other regional offices, is slowly being drained, and, without replenishment before March, about 75 staffers could be eliminated.
Of course, regulation was already faltering before the shutdown. The agency has been suffering from severe staff losses under Trump, with some 1,600 staff leaving in the administration’s first year and only about one-quarter as many new hires, according to Union of Concerned Scientists.
Meanwhile, lead exposure remains deeply neglected in environmental regulations. Lead contaminates the pipes of at least 4 million homes nationwide; an estimated half a million kids aged 1 to 5 have elevated lead concentrations in their blood, with especially high risks found among black children and children in poverty. Yet Trump’s new plan to address lead exposure seemed perilously weak to advocates. According to John Rumpler, senior director of Environment America’s Clean Water for America Campaign, while the new rule is on hold indefinitely, even when operating normally, “this EPA has been so ineffective in regulating lead contamination of drinking water, that it is hard for me to pinpoint any further lack of progress attributable to the shutdown at this point.”
Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director of the Environmental Defense Fund, commented in an e-mail that the lead plan is one of many areas where the EPA has faltered; the shutdown just caps a cascade of failures on anti-pollution protections: “Even without a shutdown, the Trump administration wouldn’t be meeting deadlines under its toothless Lead Action Plan—because it didn’t set any deadlines, concrete goals, or timelines in the plan. The shutdown will likely be used as an excuse for delaying much-needed updates to the Lead and Copper Rule and the lead hazard standards and has put on hold critical inspections for compliance with lead-safe rules. EPA’s lead inspectors should be on the job…protecting children from lead.”
Compounding the regulatory lapse is the ongoing crisis of lead exposure in schools. Public concerns have exploded since the catastrophe of mass lead poisoning emerged in Flint. Since the crisis was traced to the city’s crumbling, neglected infrastructure, more school districts have been examining drinking-water facilities in school buildings and finding evidence of widespread contamination that potentially puts many children at risk. Now more than half of states have initiated drinking-water-testing programs, but the protections vary widely. According to a recent study published by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which analyzed lead-testing programs in 24 states plus Washington, DC, more than 40 percent of schools tested “had one or more water samples with a lead concentration at or above the state’s action level.”
About 12 percent of all water samples tested in the 12 states with available data revealed a lead concentration at or above the state’s action level. Moreover, states use varying approaches to remediation, including shutting off contaminated taps or fully replacing fixtures. The key revelation, according to co-author Christina Hecht, is that “there’s no uniform way that states are testing for lead in school drinking water.” At the same time, however, “Lack of federal regulations puts the responsibility for monitoring school drinking water for lead on the states.” The government’s own audits confirm the conclusion of the study that “further research and consensus is still needed to set a nationwide health-based standard for regulating lead concentration in school drinking water.” Meanwhile, currently about half of states have no testing program for schools at all.
Long-term public-health hazards like lead contamination are left to fester during the shutdown, while the researchers and support staff tasked with carrying out day-to-day enforcement of public-health protections are paralyzed. But even when the regulatory system shuts down, the pollution threats in our water systems don’t stop flowing into our communities.