How the Government Shutdown Impacts EPA and Other Agencies

January 14, 2019
Important federal biological, pollution, and food safety monitoring has been suspended as thousands of federal workers are furloughed and forbidden from working, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These interruptions create risks for both human health and environmental protection, extending even to endangered species.
The Food & Drug Administration has suspended most of its food inspections intended to prevent food-borne illnesses, although the agency is considering resuming some portion of screening.
Meanwhile, the EPA has shut down some of its water testing laboratories, such as its regional lab in Georgia. States served by the Georgia lab, such as North Carolina, have stopped sending in water samples due to the closure, so water samples are not getting tested.
In addition, EPA work on pollution discharge permit issuance and compliance monitoring has also ceased. This means that no one is looking to check what is being dumped into our waters or to see if dischargers are exceeding permit limits – a situation PEER calls a “polluters holiday.”
“The government says that its employees are working where there is a threat to human health, but there is some confusion as to what work is exempted and what work is suspended,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, pointing out that most food safety inspections and water quality monitoring has stopped. “Federal agencies should not wait for people to get sick before resuming testing to prevent illnesses.”
Some shutdowns affect both human health and wildlife. For example, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite imagery is no longer available to monitor toxic red tide blooms off Florida’s coasts. Red tide poisoning has sickened swimmers but has also killed more than 200 threatened manatees in 2018.
The risks for wildlife are compounded by reopening nearly 40 national wildlife refuges for hunting access. PEER points out that this move is contrary to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s own Contingency Plan.
By contrast, cessation of FWS formal consultations under the Endangered Species Act on incidental take of wildlife allow injurious activities to proceed if FWS does not object within set time limits.
“Our Fish & Wildlife Service prioritizing hunting above wildlife protection is troubling, to say the least,” remarked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that hunting promotes neither human safety or resource protection, but may do just the opposite. “Our national investment in protecting our most vulnerable wildlife may be forfeit by cessation of monitoring during an extended shutdown, thus placing endangered species in further jeopardy.”
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'Environmentally Friendly' Flame Retardant Could Degrade into Less Safe Compounds
To reduce the risk of fire, many everyday products –– from building materials to furniture to clothing –– contain flame retardants. In recent years, some of these compounds were shown to have harmful effects on the environment, causing them to be replaced by more eco-friendly alternatives. However, a new study in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology, indicates that heat or ultraviolet light could break down a “safe” flame retardant into potentially harmful compounds.
Some brominated flame retardants, such as hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), persist and bioaccumulate in the environment, potentially having toxic effects on organisms. As a result, some international regulatory bodies have banned HBCD, which is commonly used in polystyrene foam insulation. A replacement for HBCD, polymeric flame retardant (polyFR) is a large polymer that it is much less likely to enter cells or accumulate in the food chain. Although polyFR is considered a more environmentally friendly flame retardant, the long-term behavior of the chemical is unknown. So Christoph Koch, Bernd Sures and colleagues examined whether heat or ultraviolet light — which could be encountered during the product’s use as insulation in a hot attic or after its disposal in an open landfill — could break down polyFR into smaller, potentially more harmful substances.
To simulate different environmental conditions polyFR might encounter during its lifetime, the researchers exposed the flame retardant powder to heat (140 F) or ultraviolet light and analyzed the samples with mass spectrometry. When the researchers irradiated polyFR with ultraviolet light for 3 hours, they detected 75 different degradation products, including eight containing bromine. In contrast, heat treatment for 36 weeks yielded only seven degradation products, one of which contained bromine. Because some of the detected compounds were small and brominated, they have the potential to be harmful, say the researchers. The team notes that polyFR may degrade differently when incorporated with polystyrene into foam insulation.
Sunscreen and Cosmetics Compound may Harm Coral by Altering Fatty Acids
Although sunscreen is critical for preventing sunburns and skin cancer, some of its ingredients are not so beneficial to ocean-dwelling creatures. In particular, sunscreen chemicals shed by swimmers are thought to contribute to coral reef decline. Now, researchers reporting in ACS’ journal Analytical Chemistry say that one such chemical, octocrylene (OC), which is also in some cosmetics and hair products, accumulates in coral as fatty acid esters that could be toxic to the marine organism.
According to several research studies, up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the world’s oceans every year. To protect coral reefs, the state of Hawaii recently banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals known to harm coral, with the law set to take effect in January 2021. Another substance, OC, can be found in cosmetics such as hair sprays and conditioners, as well as sunscreens. Although OC is toxic to coral at high concentrations, Didier Stien, Philippe Lebaron and colleagues wondered how it would affect coral at levels more likely to be encountered in the environment.
To find out, the researchers exposed coral to OC at various concentrations for a week. They found that the coral was sensitive to the compound at concentrations of 50 micrograms per liter and greater, which is about 10 times higher than levels measured in the ocean. OC accumulated in the coral as fatty acid conjugates, which may interfere with the organism’s metabolism. The team also detected increased levels of acylcarnitines in the exposed corals, which are produced under conditions of abnormal fatty acid metabolism and mitochondrial dysfunction. The researchers say that levels of OC in the ocean might have been underestimated previously because these measurements did not take into account OC  fatty acid esters.
Raytheon Company Penalized $45,750 for Wetlands Violations
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) fined Massachusetts-based Raytheon Company $45,750 for unauthorized destruction of approximately 5,000 square feet of bordering vegetated wetland during site work at the company’s 178-acre Osgood Street facility in Andover, MA.
Raytheon had originally requested that the Andover Conservation Commission grant an emergency certification that would allow the company to clear and remove from a designated wetland resource area the presence of an obstruction, a beaver dam. Raytheon contended at that time that the beaver dam posed a danger to public safety due to flooding impacts to Raytheon land that included a fire-suppression system that consisted of valves and electronic controls. The Commission granted the emergency certification to Raytheon on April 25, 2018. 
On May 31, 2018, MassDEP received a complaint that the work by the company was in violation of the Emergency Certification. That same day, the Conservation Commission issued an enforcement order finding the work done under the emergency certification was excessive and unauthorized. 
“The authorization of any work performed in a wetlands resource area is prescribed; it is not a blank check to do additional work,” said Eric Worrall, director of MassDEP’s Northeast Regional Office in Wilmington. “To its credit, the company quickly recognized that the work was not authorized and has agreed to restore the impacted area and pay an appropriate penalty.” 
Raytheon Company has agreed to cease activity within the impacted area, install erosion controls along the edge to prevent further damage and submit a restoration plan for approval. Once approved, a wetland scientist will be on-site while the work is conducted and completed no later than May 31, 2019. In addition, the restoration work must be monitored for five continuous growing year cycles concluding on August 31, 2023. Raytheon Company will pay $20,000 of the penalty, and MassDEP has agreed to suspend the balance of $25,750 provided all terms of the order are met.
Fiat Chrysler to Spend over $500 Million to Resolve Diesel Emission Testing Defeat Devices
The Department of Justice, the EPA and the State of California announced a settlement with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V., FCA US, and affiliates (Fiat Chrysler) for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act and California law. Fiat Chrysler has agreed to implement a recall program to repair more than 100,000 noncompliant diesel vehicles sold or leased in the United States, offer an extended warranty on repaired vehicles, and pay a civil penalty of $305 million to settle claims of cheating emission tests and failing to disclose unlawful defeat devices. Fiat Chrysler also will implement a program to mitigate excess pollution from these vehicles.  The recall and federal mitigation programs are estimated to cost up to approximately $185 million. In a separate settlement with California, Fiat Chrysler will pay an additional $19 million to mitigate excess emissions from more than 13,000 of the noncompliant vehicles in California. In addition, in a separate administrative agreement with the United States Customs and Border Protection, Fiat Chrysler will pay a $6 million civil penalty to resolve allegations of illegally importing 1,700 noncompliant vehicles.
The Environmental Protection Agency and California settlement (EPA/California Settlement) resolves claims of EPA and California relating to Fiat Chrysler’s use of defeat devices to cheat emission tests. Defeat devices are design elements (in this case software functions) installed in vehicles that reduce the effectiveness of the emission control system during normal on-road driving conditions. The affected vehicles are model year 2014 through 2016 Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles equipped with “EcoDiesel” 3.0 liter engines.
The settlement does not resolve any potential criminal liability. The settlement also does not resolve any consumer claims or claims by individual owners or lessees who may have asserted claims in the ongoing multidistrict litigation. In addition to its separate settlement addressing excess emissions for affected vehicles in California, the state of California has also entered into another separate settlement with Fiat Chrysler resolving alleged violations of California consumer protection laws relating to the affected vehicles.
“The Department of Justice is committed to the full and fair enforcement of the laws that protect our nation’s environment,” said Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio. “Fiat Chrysler broke those laws and this case demonstrates that steep penalties await corporations that engage in such egregious violations.  Assistant Attorney General Jeff Clark, and his team in the Environment and Natural Resources Division, are to be commended for securing significant relief in this case for the American people.”
“Fiat Chrysler deceived consumers and the federal government by installing defeat devices on these vehicles that undermined important clean air protections,” said EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “Today’s settlement sends a clear and strong signal to manufacturers and consumers that EPA will vigorously enforce the nation’s laws designed to protect the environment and public health.”
As alleged in the civil complaint filed by the United States Justice Department on behalf of EPA on May 23, 2017, Fiat Chrysler equipped over 100,000 EcoDiesel Ram 1500 and Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles (Model Years 2014-2016) sold in the United States with illegal and undisclosed software that causes the emission control system to operate differently during emission control tests than when it is driven on the road. When the vehicle is being tested for compliance with EPA or California emission standards, the software activates full emission controls. In contrast, during real world driving, the software features reduce or deactivate emission controls, reducing the effectiveness of the vehicles’ emission control systems. The United States alleged that one or more of these software features, as configured in Fiat Chrysler’s vehicles, are defeat devices. The result is vehicles that meet emission standards during standard regulatory testing, but that emit air pollutants, including oxides of nitrogen (NOx), at a higher rate when the vehicles are on the road, much higher than the EPA and California emission standards allow. NOx pollution contributes to harmful ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter, pollutants associated with a range of serious health effects, including asthma attacks, respiratory illnesses, and other respiratory-related or cardiovascular-related effects, including damage to lung tissue and premature death.
EPA discovered these defeat devices in Fiat Chrysler’s vehicles during vehicle emission testing EPA performed in 2015 and 2016 at the National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory (NVFEL).
The EPA/California Settlement requires Fiat Chrysler to implement a recall and repair program to remove all defeat devices in the vehicles and replace the vehicles’ software so that they comply with EPA and California emission standards. Fiat Chrysler tested vehicles with the new software and demonstrated to EPA and California that the repaired vehicles will meet the applicable emission standards. EPA and California also tested the repaired vehicles and determined that they perform the same on emission tests as they do under normal driving conditions. Fiat Chrysler must repair at least 85% of the vehicles within two years or face stiff penalties. Fiat Chrysler must offer an extended warranty for vehicles that are repaired. Fiat Chrysler also must test repaired vehicles for five years to ensure the vehicles continue to meet emission standards over time and will pay additional penalties if the vehicles fail to meet those standards. 
The settlement further requires Fiat Chrysler to implement corporate governance, organizational and technical process reforms to minimize the likelihood of future Clean Air Act violations, and to hire a compliance auditor for three years to oversee and assess the effectiveness of these reforms.
The EPA/California Settlement requires Fiat Chrysler to implement a federal mitigation program to offset the environmental impacts of the non-compliant vehicles by reducing NOx emissions in the atmosphere. Fiat Chrysler will be required to work with one or more vendors of aftermarket catalytic converters to improve the efficiency of 200,000 converters that will be sold in the 47 states that do not already require the use of the California-mandated high efficiency gasoline vehicle catalysts. Such converters are purchased by vehicle owners to replace out-of-warranty catalytic converters. The mitigation program under the EPA/California Settlement is expected to fully mitigate NOx emissions caused by Fiat Chrysler’s violations across the country outside of California. The State of California’s separate mitigation program will fully address excess NOx from affected vehicles in California.
The Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee has secured a settlement for consumers with FCA and Bosch. Class members will receive between $990 and $3,075—an aggregate value of over $300 million if all class members participate—plus an extended warranty and an emissions fix also provided for in the EPA/California Settlement. Under California's separate consumer settlement, FCA also must provide consumers with the relief contained in the PSC agreement. For more information, consumers can go to or call FCA at 1-833-280-4748.
The EPA/California Settlement Consent Decree will be lodged in federal court in the Northern District of California and there will be a period of 30 days for public notice and comment. The penalty is due within 30 days of the court’s entry of the Consent Decree.
Making Ammonia ‘Greener’
Ammonia, a compound first synthesized about a century ago, has dozens of modern uses and has become essential in making the fertilizer that now sustains most of our global food production.
But while we’ve been producing ammonia at a large scale since the 1930s, it has been accomplished mainly in hulking chemical plants requiring vast amounts of hydrogen gas from fossil fuels—making ammonia among the most energy-intensive among all large-volume chemicals.
A pair of researchers at Case Western Reserve University—one an expert in electro-chemical synthesis, the other in applications of plasmas—are working on fixing that.
Researchers Julie Renner and Mohan Sankaran have come up with a new way to create ammonia from nitrogen and water at low temperature and low pressure. They’ve done it successfully so far in a laboratory without using hydrogen or the solid metal catalyst necessary in traditional processes.
“Our approach—an electrolytic process with a plasma—is completely new,” said Mohan Sankaran, the Goodrich Professor of Engineering Innovation at the Case School of Engineering.
Plasmas, often referred to as the fourth state of matter (apart from solid, liquid or gas), are ionized clouds of gas, consisting of positive ions and free electrons, which give it the unique ability to activate chemical bonds, including the rather challenging nitrogen molecule, at room temperature.
Renner, a Climo Assistant Professor in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department, added that because this new process doesn’t need high pressure or high temperature or hydrogen,  it makes it scalable—”the ideal kind of technology for a much smaller plant, one with high potential to be powered by renewable energy.”
The results of their two-year collaboration were published this month in the journal Science Advances.
Virtually all commercial ammonia is made from nitrogen and hydrogen, using an iron catalyst at high temperature and pressure. German physical chemist Fritz Haber received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918 for developing this process, which made manufacturing ammonia economically feasible.
But the process became more economically profitable when industrial chemist Carl Bosch (who also won a Nobel Prize in 1931) brought the method into a large-scale system. The process was further propelled by a second innovation: the development of steam methane reforming that made hydrogen more accessible and less expensive.
So, what became known as the Haber-Bosch process became the go-to global method for fixing nitrogen and hydrogen to make ammonia.
But Haber-Bosch was never the only approach to nitrogen fixation, it was just the turn-of-the-century winner.
Renner and Sankaran have resurrected an element from a little-known Norwegian method that predated Haber-Bosch (the Birkeland-Eyde process) which reacted nitrogen and oxygen to produce nitrates, another chemical that can be used in agriculture. That process lost out to Haber-Bosch mostly because it required even more energy in the form of electricity, a limited resource in the early 20th century.
“Our approach is similar to electrolytic synthesis of ammonia, which has gained interest as an alternative to Haber-Bosch because it can be integrated with renewable energy,” Sankaran said. “However, like the Birkeland-Eyde process, we use a plasma, which is energy intensive. Electricity is still a barrier, but less so now, and with the increase in renewables, it may not be a barrier at all in the future.
“And perhaps most significantly, our process does not produce hydrogen gas,” he said. “This has been the major bottleneck of other electrolytic approaches to forming ammonia from water (and nitrogen), the undesirable formation of hydrogen.”
The Renner-Sankaran process also does not use a solid metal catalyst that could be one of the reasons ammonia is obtained instead of hydrogen.
“In our system, the ammonia is formed at the interface of a gas plasma and liquid water surface and forms freely in solution,” Sankaran said.
So far, the “table-top batches” of ammonia produced by the duo have been very small and the energy efficiency is still less than Haber-Bosch. But with continued optimization, their discovery and development of a new process could someday lead to smaller, more localized ammonia plants which use green energy.
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