The Environmental Protection Agency is one of the federal organizations that has been most affected by the recent government shutdown, with 94 percent of its employees furloughed indefinitely and many of its current activities put on pause. There are over 150 EPA facilities across all 50 states and four U.S. territories, the majority of which have been given a window of five days to cease operations. The EPA has reserved a core group of emergency staff — 1,069 employees — to continue working in case of an environmental incident that might create an “imminent threat to human life,” and only experiments or activities financed by unexpired or unobligated appropriations have continued running.
A whole slew of investigations conducted by the EPA across the nation have been halted after the federal government’s effective closure on Tuesday. For example, Brian Kelly, an on-scene coordinator for the EPA, was called on to inspect the ruins of the warehouse that had caught on fire just last week in southwest Detroit, but now the investigation has been put off because of the stalemate in Congress.
The warehouse’s last proprietor was the owner of Biochem Technical Services LLC, a private medical waste management company. The building was foreclosed shortly after its acquisition this summer because the owner was unable to afford the unexpended taxes that were due. Shortly after the fire, a local neighbor submitted photographs of what were 100 boxes of hazardous waste that were stored in the abandoned warehouse.
Because of the EPA’s closure, workers like Kelly are not able to properly handle the dangers of neglected hazardous waste and to find out who is responsible. The cause of the fire is still unknown, and not only is the release of chemicals and toxins from the storehouse polluting the air because of the fire, but the shambles left over after the building collapsed could be contaminated and posing a harmful risk to the surrounding community.
That is just one case of the way the government shutdown affects the normal activities of the EPA, and the employees are not only frustrated by the delay of their pay, but by the interruption of their work to solve environmental issues as well. One of the EPA’s employee representatives based in Chicago, John O’Grady, told The Guardian this week, “No one is going to be out inspecting water discharges or wet lands. Nobody is going to be out inspecting waste water treatment plants, drinking water treatment plants or landfills — nothing. None of that is going to be done. The employees are absolutely devastated.”
EPA employees in charge of writing laws for U.S. environment standards, such as vehicle fuel-economy ratings and greenhouse gas emission rates, are completely stalled, including those involved with the most recent efforts of the Obama administration’s climate change agenda.
One of the most ambitious and debated strategies for the EPA under the new plan was to tackle and restrict emissions by coal plants, which are the most responsible for greenhouse gas pollution in the United States.
This year, the government mandated that all future plants should be 40 percent cleaner than by today’s standards. By next year, the EPA had planned to begin scrutinizing and regulating all existing coal plants. However, in light of the suspension of EPA funds and projects, the government shutdown has temporarily delayed the new climate change agenda.