Shutting the government down could have particularly severe effects on the EPA’s oversight of chemicals in commerce and further delay the entry of new chemicals onto the market, two attorneys specializing in chemical policy told Bloomberg Environment.

“If a shutdown were to occur—any shutdown of any length—would invite calamitous results,” said Lynn Bergeson, managing partner of Bergeson and Campbell PC.

The EPA’s chemicals office faces the most deadlines in its history in 2019 due to requirements under the 2016 Toxic Substances Control Act amendments.

“The longer the shutdown, the greater the damage to EPA institutionally and to the toxics program as a whole,” Bergeson said Dec. 18, as Congress and the White House were still negotiating a possible budget agreement.

The spending bill being debated in Congress would temporarily fund the federal government through Feb. 8. But President Donald Trump said Dec. 20 he wouldn’t sign a spending bill that didn’t include funding for a wall along the country’s border with Mexico.

Lingering Effects

“Even a short shutdown is highly disruptive,” Bergeson said by email. “A week or so shutdown could take months from which to recover. The emotional setback this holiday season is especially cruel and our federal employees deserve better.”

The EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, which oversees chemicals and pesticides, this year registered its lowest morale rating since the Partnership for Public Service—a nonprofit that studies the government workforce—started tracking it in 2012, according to the service’s 2018 survey.

“I think that morale is low across EPA,” said William Jordan, who served at the EPA between 1975 and 2016 and retired as the deputy director of the pesticide program.

New Chemicals

If the shutdown is prolonged, the EPA would have to furlough staff, which would further prolong the manufacture and sale of new chemicals that already have had their statutorily mandated 90-day reviews delayed, said Robert Helminiak, vice president of legal and government relations for the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA).

The association represents small chemical manufacturers and divisions of large companies that make specialty chemicals. Not all specialty chemicals are new chemicals, but new compounds tend to be specially designed for narrow market applications, he said.

“The new chemicals review process can be expected to be uniquely impacted by any shut-down,” Bergeson said. “The complicating factor here is the ‘stop-start’ nature of any shut-down and the havoc it invites in an already tight 90-day time frame.”

The TSCA amendments direct the agency to decide within 90 days, with a one-time extension of 90 additional days, whether a new chemical would or might pose an unreasonable risk warranting some type of control before it could be manufactured.

Despite that requirement, it has still taken the EPA months—in some cases years—to decide whether a new chemical can be made.

—With assistance from Tiffany Stecker.