How The EPA Reacts To A Government Shutdown

Did you know that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had a published Contingency Plan in anticipation of the current government shutdown? I guess in hindsight, you would have expected it for an agency with 134 facilities dotted across the country. And in fact, it’s required by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under Circular A-11, Section 124 that all government agencies have plans for an orderly shutdown “in the event of an absence of appropriations.”

The EPA’s plan records a staff of 13,972 as of December 17, 2018 of which 13,489 are permanent, fulltime employees. 753 employees are estimated as “necessary to protect life and property” and would be exempt from the shutdown under 31 U.S.C. 1342 and would continue to work on what are referred to as “Excepted Activities.” The vast majority of staff are subject to furlough or shutdown. Certain employees could continue to work on programs funded by unexpired appropriations where carryover fees remain from the previous budget.

Excepted activities to continue and the level of support to perform them is determined by the EPA’s Offices of Mission Support, Chief Financial Officer and General Counsel. These would typically need to align with the needs of homeland and national security, those assuring the public’s health and safety, the protection of federal property, law enforcement and disaster recovery and assistance.

When you read the plan, it has an eerily similar feel to the disaster recovery plans that our water and wastewater plants have on file to react to major catastrophes.

The plan provides some interesting examples of activities the EPA deems “excepted” and therefore continuable under the government shutdown. These include the 29 EPA laboratories which are to be physically protected from intrusion but also to ensure that ongoing studies are not impaired by the interruption. There are also 800 superfund sites that the EPA is continuing to operate to avoid a potential risk to public health and safety, such as an acid mine drainage treatment project. Legal enforcement and Emergency Response Readiness operations also continue.

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Perhaps the darkest part of the Plan is the shutdown of the contracting operations of the EPA, forbidding the signing or processing of any new contracts, grants, cooperative or interagency agreements during the shutdown. Payments to existing contractors, grantees etc. are also not to be made during the shutdown. It’s one thing for EPA staff to be forced to take unpaid leave however expected. But the knock-on effect to the private sector is significant.

Finally the plan provides a brief description of how an orderly return to work should occur. What’s missing it seems is a counseling plan for those workers being financially or emotionally affected by the shutdown. But I suppose there’s no government counsellors available to counsel.

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