The deadly coronavirus pandemic that has taken millions of lives around the world and shaped its current state, has also prolonged exposure to toxic pollutants at the nation’s most contaminated sites, according to a federal report.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General studied how the pandemic affected the long-term cleanup of Superfund National Priorities List, finding long delays due to pandemic-related restrictions and lack of policy guidance extended the exposure to hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants at 31 unnamed sites.
The EPA OIG also found that the pandemic-related cleanup delays disproportionately affected some groups, like American Indian, Alaska native, Amish, Mennonite and people living in rural communities.
The report attributes much of the delay to the agency’s unpreparedness for the scope of the pandemic’s effects.
“The lack of updated EPA guidance and policy magnified delays and gaps in oversight of site work,” the OIG concluded. “If the EPA does not keep pace with the need to protect its RPMs during this pandemic or future crises, foreseeable impacts include delayed and prolonged cleanups; increased costs; prolonged human health and ecological exposures; and delayed remedial actions, which may lead to an increase in situations requiring immediate, emergency responses. These impacts may also add to the cumulative and disproportionate impacts that some communities—including communities with environmental justice concerns—already suffer.”
During the early days of the pandemic, local governments established social distancing measures such as travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and quarantine restrictions. Here in Indiana, Gov. Eric Holcomb issued Executive Order 20-02, the state’s own stay-at-home order, which lasted for about a month.
Those restrictions created unforeseen challenges, like lack of access, change of modes of communication and others, that created delays in action at Superfund sites throughout the U.S.
The EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management adopted temporary “enforcement discretion” policies that modified how the agencies would enforce regulations during the COVID-19 public health emergency.
The OIG found that 31% of Superfund site areas, known as operable units, experienced schedule delays of greater than one month due to travel restrictions alone. At its peak, the maximum number of delays or reductions happened in April 2020, when 110 operable units across 81 Superfund sites experienced delays and reduced construction activity.
“The schedule delays were a result of decisions made by headquarters and regional managers, who had to balance the risks of sending [remedial project managers] to Superfund sites during a pandemic with the risks to surrounding communities if the pace of Superfund cleanup work slowed. Managers often decided to scale back travel to address only critical needs,” the report found.
The delays resulted in extended exposures to hazardous substances, pollutants and contaminants at 38 operable units at 31 Superfund sites.
Of those sites, 26 had human health impacts, five had ecological impacts and seven had both human health and ecological impacts.
The OIG also found that communities disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, like American Indians and Alaskan Native people, were also disproportionately affected by cleanup delays, often due to those communities closing their borders in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Communities like the Amish, Mennonite and other rural communities that do not use or cannot access electronic communication methods and isolated themselves during the early stages of the pandemic were unable to communicate with EPA staff, delaying cleanup work at Superfund sites located near those communities.
The EPA said it would draft and disseminate a document about “lessons learned” during the pandemic and incorporate those lessons in future policy guidance to avoid future cleanup delays.