With the Government Shutdown, Is Your Water Safe?

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 out of 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.”

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