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Environmental inspections plummet amid pandemic

State water quality, air pollution, and other inspections, already declining, cratered after the coronavirus hit Massachusetts, records show.

An aerial view of morning traffic on the Tobin Bridge. The state's environmental inspections dropped precipitously as a result of COVID-19, records show.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/David L Ryan, Globe Staff

In the first five months of the year, state environmental officials conducted far fewer inspections than in previous years during the same period, records show, raising concerns about everything from air quality to drinking water in Massachusetts.

The number of overall inspections conducted from January through May by the Department of Environmental Protection fell by more than half compared to the same period last year, including a 62 percent decline in inspections of drinking water and four times fewer air quality inspections.

The drop came mainly after environmental officials reduced operations when the coronavirus hit the state in March, they said.


“In the initial weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, MassDEP focused inspection activities on ongoing or imminent threats to public health and the environment in order to protect the health and safety of MassDEP employees, the regulated community, and the public,” said Katie Gronendyke, a spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

The state has sought to “increase inspection activities to address other areas,” including compliance and enforcement efforts, permits, and a range of housing and economic development projects, she said.

“MassDEP will continue to increase field activities, while ensuring activities are conducted safely and in accordance with procedures and protocols necessary to protect its employees, as well as members of the public,” Gronendyke said.

The decline in inspections comes on the heels of criticism that the department failed to send reports to federal regulators about the safety of watersheds in Massachusetts. A report by the state auditor last month found that environmental officials had not filed reports required by the Clean Water Act that are meant to inform the public about whether specific watersheds are polluted.

Even before the pandemic, the department has conducted fewer inspections in recent years, as its staff has declined sharply.


Between 2006 and 2016, the department’s enforcement actions for serious violations had dropped by more than half, the Globe reported. Fines collected from violators also plummeted during the same period by nearly 75 percent.

In those years, the number of agency employees devoted to enforcement, compliance, and environmental monitoring — everywhere from landfills to gas stations — had fallen by nearly 25 percent.

Environmental advocates have raised concerns about this year’s falloff in inspections, which they called vital during the pandemic.

The decline in inspections include a significant drop in monitoring asbestos, water pollution controls, and wetlands.

“Air quality inspections, of which there have never been many, are practically non-existent this year, despite the increased need for them in light of how air quality interacts with COVID susceptibility,” said Sylvia Broude, executive director of Community Action Works, an advocacy group in Boston.

She and other advocates said the state must do more to protect the environment since the Trump administration has sought to cut a sweeping number of environmental regulations.

“We’re more vulnerable to environmental threats than ever, while also facing the health threat from the pandemic,” Broude said. “Our communities are facing increased risk at a time when we can least afford it.”

Others were willing to cut the department more slack, given the circumstances.

“DEP deserves a fair amount of credit for how they have handled inspection and enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly compared to Trump’s EPA, which has simply stopped so many of these activities,” said Elizabeth Turnbull, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts.


She worries, however, about what will happen in the coming months and years, as state coffers are depleted because of the shutdown.

“Without a strong DEP and meaningful inspection and enforcement, we simply will not know what is being put in our air, our water, and our bodies,” she said. “And there may be grave consequences.”

David Abel can be reached at Follow him @davabel.