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Workers and local communities alike suffer as shutdown takes toll on EPA

"Pollution, waters, and streams -- they're monitored by the EPA."

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment runs a water treatment plant at the Superfund site at Summitville Mine on June 11, 2018 in Summitville, Colorado. CREDIT: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment runs a water treatment plant at the Superfund site at Summitville Mine on June 11, 2018 in Summitville, Colorado. CREDIT: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

On the verge of its third week, the ongoing government shutdown has taken a steep toll at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Furloughed EPA workers say they are desperate to get back to their jobs, many of which are critical for both the environment and public health.

“Morale is low,” said Gary Morton, who serves as president for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 238.

Morton, speaking to ThinkProgress on behalf of EPA employees represented by the union, didn’t mince words as he detailed the ongoing impact of the shutdown on federal employees. Many are worried about rent payments and other bills, he noted; they were already suffering from low morale before the shutdown.

But they’re also concerned about a lapse in the projects and work the EPA oversees.

When the shutdown first began December 22, the EPA turned to leftover funding to carry the agency into the next week. But last Friday that carryover cushion expired, leaving the vast majority of the EPA’s 13,972 employees furloughed and on unpaid leave. Only 812 EPA workers are “excepted” under the agency’s shutdown plan, meaning that they will continue to work, albeit without pay.

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EPA union representatives say the thousands of furloughed workers mean they’ll be away from jobs integral to their communities. Many local community projects are currently on hold as a result, including air quality monitoring and Superfund site cleanup, something that is endangering public health.

Morton highlighted that as “environmental policemen” for the country, EPA workers are intended to deter “polluters” and entities looking to evade environmental oversight. The shutdown has outsized implications for state programs, he said, along with grants to universities and community group projects.

“Environmental impacts have no boundaries. Many environmental impacts are unseen, like lead contamination,” Morton said. “Even in our rural areas, pollution, waters, and streams — they’re monitored by the EPA.”

Referring to EPA employees as “hostages” in President Donald Trump’s ongoing feud with lawmakers over funding for a wall on the southern border, Morton emphasized that state and community projects are suffering as a result of the impasse.

“Superfund cleanups have stopped. Permitting for air and water has stopped. Grants and contracts with community groups, universities, any type of funding in those areas, has come to a halt,” he said.

In response to ThinkProgress’ request for comment, an EPA spokesperson only highlighted the agency’s shutdown contingency plan, which indicates emaciated staffing across all offices. The Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, which has a staff of 981, has only 16 excepted staffers. Meanwhile, the Office of Land and Emergency Management, which oversees the cleanup of toxic Superfund sites, is down from 468 staffers to a mere three people.

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That lack of personnel has immediate ramifications stretching across the country. In addition to upending scientific research, the shutdown has implications for places that rely on the EPA for help.

The area surrounding Louisiana’s controversial Denka rubber plant in LaPlace, for instance, is generally at an elevated risk for cancer and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality works with the EPA to gather data there. But the shutdown sparked fears that the EPA would not be monitoring air quality at Denka, leaving residents concerned for their safety in an area with a history of cancer and other severe diseases.

Wilma Subra, who works with the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, told ThinkProgress that sampling will continue through an EPA contractor. However, Subra said, community members will not be provided with the data as they typically are until the shutdown ends. Residents rely on this data and many are left “concerned” and in the dark regarding high-risk areas as long as the shutdown continues.

Other communities are also in limbo. In East Chicago, the EPA canceled a planned public hearing for the former West Calumet Housing Complex, a Superfund site contaminated with lead and arsenic. Residents in the area have expressed displeasure with the agency’s cleanup proposals and a hearing was scheduled for January 10.

Thomas Frank, who works with the group Calumet Lives Matter, told ThinkProgress that his community is an example of the shutdown’s environmental justice impact. As an “economically disparaged community of color,” the area has never been a priority for the government, he said. And even if another public hearing is held, the distrust and discontentment residents feel has only grown thanks to the stalemate in Washington, D.C.

“Through our point of view, the government has been shut down for more than 40 years,” he said.

Other Superfund areas are also impacted. Under the EPA’s shutdown plan, work at sites that pose the greatest threat to human health is continuing, but seemingly with reduced resources. The EPA has been largely unavailable for comment thanks to the shutdown and organizations told ThinkProgress they have been working to identify which areas have been compromised as a result of the furloughs.

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In Bridgeton, Missouri, work at the West Lake Landfill — which contains radioactive waste — is continuing, but with minimal federal supervision. According to local news reports, workers are still focused on cleanup at the site but have limited outside help from the EPA, which greatly complicates their work.

A statement sent by the EPA to a local news channel indicated agency involvement “up to the point that additional EPA direction or funding is needed.” The area’s local fire district indicated that if an emergency issue were to arise, the EPA would likely be unavailable to provide either backup or expertise.

EPA employees who spoke with ThinkProgress declined to address the potential long-term implications of reduced staff or halted agency projects. But all emphasized that prolonging the shutdown will create problems.

“How long this goes on will determine actual impacts of the shutdown,” said Sarah Watterson, speaking in her role as president of AFGE Local 907, based in Kansas.

Watterson told ThinkProgress that the toll on employees is growing, something that extends beyond their personal finances.

“We’re civil servants… we take [our oath] very seriously. It’s more than just a job for us,” she said. “We love the work that we do, impacting our communities for the better. And we know the work’s coming in, we know that it’s piling up. On top of wondering how we’re going to pay bills and put food on the table… [the] work is just piling up, adding another level to the stress.”

That sentiment was echoed by Morton. “There are projects that are at a standstill,” Morton, of AFGE Council 238, said, referring to work across the country. “It doesn’t serve well for our leadership in Washington to put the public in danger because they can’t complete their work assignments.”

But hope of the shutdown coming to an end shortly has dimmed this week. Many EPA employees were heartened by news that House Democrats were prepared to introduce a bill ending the shutdown when they assumed control of the chamber on Thursday. But a meeting on Wednesday between Democrats and Trump ended with no movement, leaving EPA workers feeling deflated, according to Watterson.

Many EPA employees are also worried that officials may be overlooking the ramifications of halting their jobs because their work occurs far from the halls of power.

“As a union, we just really want to remind people that when the federal government shuts down, it’s not just affecting Washington,” said Watterson. “We want to remind everyone that it’s everywhere. We’re civil servants, we’re not on paid vacation.”

“And if possible,” she added, “we want to work with a fully funded budget.”