EPA Employees Spend Uneasy Friday Bracing For Potential Government Shutdown

Jan 19, 2018

As the federal government nears a shutdown, frustration is mounting among federal employees tasked with overseeing the Mid-Atlantic region’s environment and energy-related programs.

The Environmental Protection Agency said Friday that it has enough money to stay open for a week in the event of a shutdown.

But a shutdown could ultimately force more than 600 of the 700 Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 3 employees to stay home, estimated Gary Morton, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3631, the union representing the region’s EPA workers.

“We will not be able to work, and this is very frustrating because projects stop, enforcement actions stop,” he said.

The EPA maintains a regional office in Philadelphia, where it administers a variety of activities.

Morton said without employees working, this would hinder EPA’s efforts to monitor air and water pollution and to impose penalties when companies violate regulations.

“Enforcement is used to deter the environmental community from violating the laws,” Morton said. “If the deterrent is not there, those companies either on purpose or by accident may violate or pollute.”

The EPA also administers grants that fund everything from environmental education to cleaning up contaminated industrial sites. A shutdown would mean the agency would no longer be able to process new contracts and grants awarded to state and community agencies, Morton said.

That doesn’t mean all those programs would come to an immediate halt. According to the agency’s shutdown contingency plan, existing projects can continue as long as they don’t require additional EPA involvement.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said in an email that the department’s programs receiving EPA funding would continue for the foreseeable future in the event of a federal shutdown.

Regardless of the duration of a shutdown, a skeleton crew of EPA staff would continue working to respond to emergencies like a natural disaster or oil spill, Morton said. He said some Region 3 staff members have traveled to Puerto Rico to assist with the hurricane cleanup effort, and they would remain there.

The Region 3 office referred questions about the shutdown to the federal Office of Budget and Management, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Morton, who has worked for the EPA for 36 years, said it’s only recently that talk of shutdowns became common within the agency as Congress passes stopgap budgets. He said the constant threats send a “terrible message” to employees who have already endured attempts to freeze wages and cut benefits.

Although in the past, Congress has eventually paid workers who were forced to stay home, Morton said going without pay is tough on some EPA staff members living paycheck to paycheck.

“These are the same employees, your neighbors in your community that serve the public, protect human health and the environment, that aren’t being allowed to work,” he said. “And they are suffering financial hardship as a result.”

Workers at the National Energy Technology Laboratory, a Department of Energy research agency with facilities in Morgantown, West Virginia and suburban Pittsburgh, might also be affected by a shutdown.

An energy department spokesperson said that a lapse in funding for the agency would mean some activities would stop, and some employees could be furloughed.

There could be exceptions to the furloughs in the case of “imminent threat to human life or protection of property,” the agency said in a guidance document on its web site.

In addition, the agency may review whether the work of its contractors can continue during a shutdown.

StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Reid Frazier contributed to this report.

This story was published in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration between WESA, Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY, to cover the commonwealth’s energy economy. Read more stories at StateImpact Pennsylvania's website.