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The Least Consequential Consequence of the Shutdown

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The latest media game, given the shutdown, is to find a part of the government that is actually shutdown and write about it as if it were of the greatest imaginable consequence – as if life in this nation is inalterably and forever deeply damaged by the shutdown.  It is as if the nation cannot function without every small bureaucracy and department of the federal government operating a full strength and with utter urgency.  For the most part it has been comical to watch.

I came across one such piece today that may win the prize in this newly minted category of “journalism.”

Shutdown Means E.P.A. Pollution Inspectors Aren’t on the Job

OH NO?!  Not that!  This story appeared in the NYTimes and comes complete with several anecdotes wherein an EPA inspector caught a company not in compliance with regulation.  The story fails to understand pollution, the nature of regulation and regulatory enforcement.

The breathless tone of the piece makes one think that pollution means immediate death for a significant number of people, that regulation is the only thing that stands between a company polluting and not polluting and finally that without immediate and constant enforcement companies will begin instantly pouring massive amounts of pollutants into the environment.  I could write a book debunking these false connections, but will instead devote a paragraph to each.

With very few exceptions, pollution’s health effects are of the chronic variety.  Further most are statistically significant, but the odds of having a single person adversely affected are reasonably small.  What I mean by this is that an increase in NOX levels in the atmosphere over say, Denver, for a period several years will increase the incidence of lung disease by some percentage of the population.  However, for a period of weeks, or even months, the effect is likely to be immeasurable.  Secondly, even under the worst of situations, the odds that Joe Bag-o-Donuts will get that lung disease is very low.

Federal environmental regulation is about a lot of things and not all of it directly relates to pollution at all.  Hence the anecdotal nature of the reporting in this piece.  The vast majority of violations cited by EPA inspectors relate to paperwork – a failure to file a report on time or to do pollution estimates with the math the EPA thinks ought to be used as opposed to the math the people that best understand the process in question can prove is most accurate.  These sorts of violations do not, in any way, result in more pollution.

Companies rarely want to pollute.  They invest massive amounts of money into equipment, systems and personnel to make sure they do not.  Just because they are not subject to EPA inspection during the shutdown, do you honestly think they will just turn those machines off, and lay those people off so they can pollute with impunity?  Really?

Oh, and one final thing.  Most federal environmental regulation regulates other governmental agencies, not “polluters” directly.  For example, the Clean Air Act establishes local air pollution control districts across the nation that are responsible for direct control in their district.  These agencies do not operate on the federal budget – they are independent agencies that operate on the funds they collect in permitting fees and enforcement fines.  These agencies operate even when the EPA is shutdown.

Even if this shutdown goes on for six months, I doubt very seriously there will be any measurable affect on the environment.


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