The excitement many Americans feel about the installation of a new Congress is still palpable, but definitely hampered by the current government shutdown. Even worse, it looks like there may be no immediate end in sight and the possibility of the situation morphing into deeper and darker territory (as in the declaration of a “national emergency).
The news has made it clear that government workers are at serious risk of not being able to pay their bills. Without funding, 800,000 employees will work but not receive pay; approximately 380,000 have been furloughed without pay.
Every day, the harm to Americans is spreading.
In the area of “environmental agencies” that protect children’s health, the impacts are both large and small.
The EPA has determined that they need only a skeletal staff of 794 workers. It makes you wonder what their 13,000 colleagues were up to.
Beginning three days after Christmas, routine actions including poisonous Superfund site cleanups, oversight of regulations, and keeping corporate polluters accountable — all came to a standstill.
Here is a list of some of the key work that isn’t taking place:
- Inspections to guarantee that activities subject to regulations are done properly and according to law.
- A majority of the Superfund program actions that supervise the clean-up of hazardous waste.
- Supervision and approval of pesticide products.
- Toxic substance approval or reviews.
- Granting of federal permits, state grants, and responses to FOIA requests.
For all those who complain about too much government regulation, the common citizen may find themselves stymied if they need any help on issues that come under the jurisdiction of the EPA staff. All workers have been instructed not to answer emails, and their phones have been routed to voicemail. These are the people that field thousands of calls per day.
Everything from if a product is EPA certified, to hearing from whistleblowers report illegal dumping near their homes.
I got first-hand insights from Bonnie Bellow of the Environmental Protection Network, a group comprised of “former EPA career staff.”
Bellow explained that the work of the EPA is all about developing “long-term protections.” The longer the government is not operating, the greater the potential dangers become.
“Everything becomes backed up,” Bellow told me. “Lack of inspections, oversight at facilities, work in labs. Monitoring is not going on.”
A key concern is that public meetings are being canceled and comment periods are being affected. Bellow related a story about East Chicago, where a proposed plan for a clean-up would now be hindered. She mentioned similar situations in New Jersey (which has the largest number of Superfund sites), and emphasized that there were examples all around the country. Bellow noted that frontline communities are at greatest jeopardy.
“What if someone is dumping asbestos?” she asked rhetorically.
Another factor is that the EPA works on a seasonal action calendar. If planning is not done and put into play, the appropriate season for work to be done is then missed.
One of most frequently reported accounts references the plight of unstaffed national parks. Both Clinton and Obama closed all parks during the periods when their administrations were facing shuttered government. This secured the areas and eliminated both harm to visitors and damage to the parks.
The Park Service stats show that up to 16,000 of 19,000 workers have been furloughed. During that time, three deaths have occurred, including that of a 14-year-old girl.
Visitor centers and bathrooms have been closed (Yes, there have been stories about human waste.). Unfortunately, without rangers or staff on the grounds, unchecked visitor behavior has made the parks (and wildlife) vulnerable to degradation, safety concerns, and even looting. In the seventy national parks
that are closed, there has been a reported spike in illegal activities.
In the areas of government which utilize the brainpower of top scientists, these people are not allowed to attend conferences. They are blocked from going to events which promote dialogue between them, academics, and members of the private sector. An example is the seven hundred federal workers who were scheduled to travel to Arizona for the American Meteorological Society.
For me, the gut-puncher was the anecdotal evidence of how an individual EPA furloughed worker, Sherrie Kinard of Lakewood, Colorado, was coping. Vaughn Hillyard filed a story on MSNBC about her, and other distraught federal workers who are trying to take care of their families. Kinard has two children with special needs. Without her paycheck, she cannot pay for their therapies.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has figured out a way to continue to push for oil drilling on federal lands in Alaska.
The shutdown is the longest in US history, leaving workers and our families unprotected from harm by the Trump administration’s irresponsible actions.