Sunset at the EPA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Tim Evanson/Flickr)
The U.S. government began grinding to a halt Tuesday morning, shackled by Congress in a revived fight over the Supreme Court-approved Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare." The resulting government shutdown is the country's first in nearly 18 years.
Several hundred thousand federal workers are being furloughed by the political spat, resulting in lost wages and suspended public services across the country. One of the hardest-hit departments is the Environmental Protection Agency, whose contingency plan for a government shutdown calls for 94 percent of its workforce to stay home.
That means the EPA "effectively shuts down," Administrator Gina McCarthy said Monday, according to the Hill. "The vast majority of people at EPA will not be working," she added. "I think it's safe to say that I will be, but beyond that I don't have the details."
Only 1,069 of the agency's 16,205 employees will be allowed to keep working under the shutdown plan. Those are the workers for whom a prolonged suspension of work "would imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property."
These "excepted personnel" include EPA employees whose activities are "essential to ensure continued public health and safety, including safe use of food and drugs and safe use of hazardous materials"; those who protect federal lands, research labs and other U.S. property; those who work in law enforcement and emergency assistance; and "the minimum staff and support services necessary to continue the above listed functions."
The remaining 15,000 workers may not be "essential" in shutdown parlance, but they're far from expendable. According to the Huffington Post's Kate Sheppard, for example, cleanup activities will be suspended at 505 Superfund sites across 47 states. More than three-quarters of the EPA's enforcement unit will also be furloughed, Reuters reports, as will most workers at its Office of Air and Radiation, which means the agency will have to pause development of policies like air pollution rules and renewable fuel standards.
"EPA employees serve a vital role in this country," says Karen S. Kellen, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, in an emailed statement. "They protect our drinking water, clean up polluted rivers, maintain the quality of the air that we breathe and protect the land that we live upon. But they also respond when disasters hit our country. EPA employees were there when America responded to Hurricane Katrina, they were there when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the gulf, they responded to Superstorm Sandy, and today in northern Colorado they are working on flood recovery."
Employees working on things like the recently unveiled carbon dioxide standards for power plants must shelve their work during the shutdown, and are legally barred from working remotely or using government-issued equipment. Not only could that delay implementation of policies designed to protect public and environmental health, Reuters notes, but it also may threaten the agency's ability to meet court-imposed deadlines for certain regulations.
"People are not going to be able to be working on these rules at home," former EPA official Dina Kruger tells Reuters. "There are a lot of complicated issues in these current rule-makings, and more time is better than less time in terms of addressing them."
Sweeping furloughs will likely make it harder to draft rules and enforce laws, but the loss of staff could also stifle U.S. companies seeking environmental permits for various business projects. "This is a decidedly bad thing for the country," says former EPA general counsel Scott Fulton. "Everybody pays, including the regulated community."
Of course, the EPA is just one of many federal bureaus poised to suffer from a lengthy shutdown. Many scientific and environmental agencies are being forced to suspend important work, from the USDA and NASA to the National Park Service. For more details, see this breakdown of what closes and stays open during a government shutdown.
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