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With much of the EPA closed, industrial safety and pollution inspections come to a halt

Andrew Wheeler, the EPA's acting head, appeared before a Senate committee for confirmation hearings in his bid to keep the position on a permanent basis. But the government shutdown has brought many of the EPA's daily operations to a halt, so most safety and pollution inspections are skipped. Judy Woodruff looks at reporting by Coral Davenport of The New York Times and the AP's Ellen Knickmeyer.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Like most government agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency has been affected by the shutdown.

    Today, the acting chief of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, faced a confirmation hearing in the Senate on his nomination to be the agency's permanent head.

    Wheeler took over the agency this summer, after Scott Pruitt resigned amid multiple investigations. Before he joined the Trump administration, Wheeler lobbied on behalf of coal industry, and critics say that creates ethical problems as well.

    As acting chief, he's delivered on a promise of deregulation that the president campaigned on and is strongly welcomed by many business and farming voices.

    Wheeler oversaw rollbacks on car fuel standards, mercury emissions standards and federal water rules. He has also downplayed the overwhelming scientific consensus on the threat of climate change.

    Today, Senator Bernie Sanders zeroed in on that.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    Do you agree with the scientific community that climate change is a global crisis that must be addressed in an aggressive way?

  • Andrew Wheeler:

    I believe that climate change is a global issue that must be addressed globally. No one country can…

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    That wasn't my question, sir. Do you agree with the scientific community?

  • Andrew Wheeler:

    I wouldn't call it the greatest crisis, no, sir. I consider it a huge issue that has to be addressed globally.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    Well, you are — I found it interesting, Mr. Wheeler. You are the nominee to be head of the Environmental Protection Agency. You, just in your opening statement, didn't mention the word climate change.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    During Wheeler's hearing, the government shutdown came up several times.

    We talked to two reporters today who specialize in the environment who are focused on that issue.

    Coral Davenport of The New York Times has been covering how inspections of chemical factories and many other industrial sites are not happening right now.

  • Coral Davenport:

    Typically, these inspectors, these EPA, engineers and scientists, would be going to places like power plants, oil refineries, chemical facilities, chemical manufacturers.

    And they would be looking for things like, are these facilities complying with the law? Are they keeping their emission levels in accordance with the law? Do they have any broken equipment? Do they have hazardous material on site that's supposed to be taken out and dealt with?

    Are they dumping toxic or hazardous chemicals into nearby rivers and streams, which could be much cheaper and easier way of getting rid of things? None of this is being overseen right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, not all of these potential violations are dangerous, but Davenport told us there are far more than the public realizes.

  • Coral Davenport:

    I talked to a furloughed EPA worker who oversees these inspections.

    And she said that every inspection she has ever done, she finds some kind of violation, maybe not an extremely hazardous violation, but always some kind of violation, always something that could be dangerous.

    So, with the shutdown now going into a few weeks, this is hundreds and hundreds of these inspections around the country that are not happening, and facility owners that know that, for the foreseeable future, these inspectors will not be on site.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Coral Davenport also told us that most companies wouldn't seek to take advantage of this gap in inspections, but the risks remain real.

  • Coral Davenport:

    More than 90 percent of industries are pretty good actors. They don't want to break the law. They don't want to be fined.

    A lot of times, these violations of pollution rules are unintentional. A site might have a piece of equipment that's broken that a company might not know about that could be leaching hazardous material, hazardous waste.

    And so the inspectors I talk to say, this is putting communities absolutely at risk of being exposed to potentially toxic, hazardous chemicals or waste from industrial sites.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The inspections are not the only concern.

    Ellen Knickmeyer of the Associated Press has been reporting on the stoppage of longtime work and cleanup at Superfund toxic waste sites nationwide.

    Here's some of what she told us.

  • Ellen Knickmeyer:

    There are hundreds of sites around the country that include some of the most contaminated sites in the U.S.

    They could be old mines. They could be old factories, places that are contaminated by chemicals or radiation or some other threat. Normally, federal workers would be helping with the cleanup of Superfund sites all around the country. And that's not happening with the shutdown.

    The people we talked, including former EPA Superfund officials, they said if the shutdown was one or two weeks, it's not that big of a problem. But, as time goes on, and as the risk of some kind of flood or rain or something that causes problems increases, then the risk of something going wrong for the public living around the sites increases.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The AP's Ellen Knickmeyer.

    And we will continue to watch all these concerns in the days to come.

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