With Government Shutdown, Environment Goes Unprotected

As the first U.S. government shutdown since 1995 began on the morning of October 1, 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was forced to put into action a contingency plan it hoped never to use. Like nearly every other government agency and service, the effects on daily activities were set to be devastating. Though the shutdown, just beginning at press time, will likely have ended before too long, here is a look at the impact it had on the EPA.

To begin with, multiple outlets reported that approximately 94% of the EPA’s activities would grind to a halt, due to employee furloughs and the overall spending freeze. Of the EPA’s 16,205 full- and part-time employees, only a very small percentage was allowed to report to work. They included some that are engaged in “military, law enforcement, or direct provision of health care activities.” Others continued working because their compensation is provided by sources besides the annual government appropriations process.

Others could also continue their work on certain exempted activities determined by EPA. These were to include: providing for homeland and national security; and voluntary or personal services necessary to respond to imminent threats to human life or property, such as the safe use of food, drugs and hazardous materials, protection of federal property, emergency and disaster assistance, law enforcement and criminal investigations and the support needed for all of these activities.

The agency’s contingency plan placed the superfund program under the “imminent threat to public health” heading. Yet, the Huffington Post reported that 505 of these toxic or hazardous waste sites in 47 states would not be attended to during the shutdown. Another example of an exempted activity was a researcher coming in to their lab to keep “unique test organisms such as fathead minnow and small crustaceans” alive during the shutdown. The contingency plan sternly noted, however, that any such work during the shutdown needed to take place “only for the hours/days it takes to perform exempted activities.” If it should only take one hour to do something, the employee needed to do it that quickly, and then head back home.

What are some of the other things that EPA does that began to be left undone on the morning of October 1? Reuters reported that work on a climate action plan President Barack Obama asked to be completed in 2014 would have to be set aside. The same went for work on Air and Radiation rules. The comment period on emission standards for newly built power plants was going to be delayed. Most of the unit tasked with taking legal action against air and water polluters was told to stay home. No use of work cell phones, and no checking work e-mail was permitted by the contingency plan.

The EPA was one of many casualties of the government shutdown, but the consequences of this casualty in particular surround us all.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, November 2013