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

Another former E.P.A. official who now lobbies on behalf of industry offered a different view, saying that a shutdown of even a few weeks was unlikely to make much difference in the amount of illegal pollution emitted or detected.

“What you have is a delay,” said the former official, Jeffrey Holmstead, who served in the E.P.A. during both Bush administrations and now works for some of the largest coal companies and electric utilities in the country. “I don’t think it’s true that all of a sudden, because E.P.A.’s inspectors are not there, that most people will take advantage of that,” he said. “There may be a few folks who believe they can get away with more, but I don’t think that’s the biggest issue.”

Among Mr. Holmstead’s clients are several companies that have been cited for violations by the E.P.A., including the electric utility Southern Company, which has had 52 sites with violations over the past five years, including 23 sites with current violations, according to E.P.A.’s enforcement database. An email sent to a Southern Company spokesman requesting comment on the violations was not answered.

Another of Mr. Holmstead’s clients, the electric utility, Ameren, owns 23 sites that have been cited for pollution violations over the past five years. A telephone message left with an Ameren spokeswoman was not returned.

In many years, about 10 to 20 percent of the E.P.A.’s pollution inspections turn up significant violations, according to the agency’s data.

Most operators “really are doing a good job,” said Adam Kushner, a former top legal official at the E.P.A. “But there’s a 1 percent that are bad actors, who will continue to do what they’re going to do, unless inspectors find them. And then there are sites where the operator just may not have identified the problem, and they’re putting bad stuff out into the air without knowing it.”

Angela McFadden, a furloughed E.P.A. environmental engineer who inspects water sites, said that in just about every inspection she does, “I always find violations, even if it’s not things that are illegal.” For example, she said, in inspecting municipal water systems in rural West Virginia she frequently found that cities and towns over-chlorinate or under-chlorinate their water — not a legal violation, but a potentially harmful situation that is easily corrected when identified by an inspector.