Funding for the EPA might lapse Dec. 22 if Congress and the White House fail to reach a short-term spending deal—but most employees at the agency wouldn’t immediately feel the impacts.
Most of the Environmental Protection Agency’s nearly 14,000 staffers would continue working even during any government shutdown, according to the agency’s Dec. 17 contingency plan. The EPA would use carryover funding—money it has left over that hasn’t expired—to sustain most agency operations, with the exception of the EPA’s Office of Inspector General.
The agency’s watchdog office would follow normal shutdown procedures, furloughing more than 90 percent of its 267 employees, according to the plan.
The EPA is among several agencies, including the Department of Interior, at risk of losing funding if the government can’t strike a deal. Lawmakers are working to pass a short-term spending measure that would keep the government funded until February, but President Donald Trump suggested Dec. 20 he won’t sign the bill unless it includes money for a border wall.
And even though EPA staff would continue working, the agency would impose some restrictions during any shutdown, including on travel and contract work. Observers also say carryover funding would only be able to sustain EPA operations a short while. Thus, any shutdown that lasts beyond a couple of weeks would force the EPA to close its doors.
In general, the use of carryover funding to keep the agency up and running is new to this administration, Stan Meiburg, a former EPA deputy regional administrator in two regions, told Bloomberg Environment. It requires some short-term shuffling of funds, and even then, the funds aren’t unlimited, he added.
If the EPA were ultimately forced to shut down for lack of carryover funds, just 5 percent of its 13,972 employees would continue to come to work, according to the EPA plan.
Any shutdown, even with most EPA employees still on the job, would have some negative effects, said Meiburg, who is now director of graduate programs in sustainability at Wake Forest University.
For example, restrictions on travel could delay agency staff’s ability to inspect polluting facilities, he said. Those restrictions could also set back permitting for wetlands, because oftentimes EPA staff travel to sites to make determinations on regulating specific sites, he added.
Any shutdown, even brief ones, cause “sluggishness, delays, and general pileups,” Meiburg said.
Pausing cleanups or inspections ultimately hurts the public, Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of public affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. “Moving the funding bill forward is necessary to our nationwide fight against threats to our health and environment.”
The EPA was hard hit in the last prolonged government shutdown in 2013, sending home more than 90 percent of its employees. Programs across the agencies saw delays, including work on cleaning up Superfund sites and registering pesticides, Meiburg said.
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