Shutdown poses threat to environment in New England
It’s been three weeks since much of the federal government was shuttered — longer than any previous shutdown — and the impact could pose a threat to New England’s environment.
About 500 employees of the Environmental Protection Agency based in the region have been forced off the job because of the impasse between President Trump and Democrats in Congress over the president’s insistence on funding for a wall on the country’s southern border.
That partial government shutdown has meant a range of inspections, permits, and enforcement of environmental regulations have come to a halt, putting the region’s water, air, and other natural resources at risk.
Some furloughed EPA employees joined dozens of other federal workers at a rally Friday outside their offices in Boston’s Post Office Square, urging Trump to end the partial shutdown and chanting, “Let us serve.”
“It’s really unfair,” said Leiran Biton, a scientist who works for the EPA in Boston. “The border issues should have nothing to do with us.”
Biton, who has been forced to dip into his savings and stop contributing to his children’s college fund, said that had he been at work, he would have been evaluating environmental permits required for a major offshore wind project south of Martha’s Vineyard that is scheduled to break ground later this year.
He said the shutdown could delay that project, which is on a stringent timetable that relies on tax credits that expire at the end of this year.
“While we’re locked out, we can’t work on it at all,” said Biton, whose wife is also a federal worker. “This will hold up the approval process.”
Friday marked the 21st day of the shutdown, matching the previous record for the longest shutdown between 1995 and 1996. About 800,000 federal employees missed their regular paychecks Friday.
The president ordered the shutdown after demanding Congress allocate $5.7 billion for a border wall with Mexico.
At the Boston rally, Senator Edward J. Markey, a Democrat, told the crowd that he’s going without pay during the shutdown and said Trump has no idea what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck.
“If you kicked Donald Trump in the heart, you would break your toe,’’ Markey told the protesters.
Julianne Sammut, a Superfund coordinator at the EPA, held a sign that read, “Workers, not walls.”
“I miss my work, honestly,” she said. “I have the honor and privilege of serving the American people as a public trust, and I would really like to get back to doing that.”
The shutdown comes at a tense time for local EPA employees. Many have raised concerns about working for the Trump administration, which has taken the agency in a very different direction than the Obama administration.
The agency’s former administrator, Scott Pruitt, resigned last year amid a spate of scandals, while Trump has called climate change “a hoax” and supported Pruitt’s efforts to dismantle scientific advisory boards, restrict the type of studies that can be used to craft public policy, and end the Obama administration’s signature plan to reduce carbon emissions. The agency is now run by Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry.
Moreover, the administrator of the EPA in New England, Alexandra Dunn, was recently confirmed by Congress for a new position in Washington, D.C., and is leaving Boston. It’s unclear who will assume her responsibilities.
While Dunn was respected by her staff, there has been tension since the Trump administration sought to cut the agency’s budget and personnel. Since 2010, the regional offices have seen their budget cut by more than 10 percent and the number of full-time employees has dropped by about 25 percent, said Steve Calder, president of the local branch of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Last May, the union filed a federal lawsuit against Trump, arguing that an executive order he issued violates union contracts.
At the rally, Calder, a clean air inspector, said some of his colleagues have been forced to take jobs in construction or work as Uber drivers during the shutdown.
“No work is getting done,” he said. “Enforcement actions have stopped.”
Linda Darveau, a regional planner for the EPA, noted that many of the agency’s energy savings programs are no longer running, making it difficult for people and organizations to plan projects to increase their energy efficiency.
“Taxpayers are getting swindled because of this,” she said. “We all just want to serve and protect the environment.”
Alison Simcox, who oversees an air quality program in the region, said her team’s absence has made it impossible for the agency to ensure that states are complying with the Clean Air Act.
None of the agency’s air-monitoring work is being done, she added, which is particularly problematic during the winter, when chimneys fill the air with smoke. States aren’t getting the federal grants they need for their own air-monitoring programs, she added.
And if a wildfire breaks out, she said, there’s no one from the agency to ensure the air is safe to breathe.
“We’re being held hostage by a wall that makes no sense,” she said. “It’s crazy that the EPA is shutdown because of a border issue.”
For Lilly Simmons, who ensures the agency’s programs are doing what they’re supposed to do, the stress of the shutdown has taken a personal toll.
Over the past 21 days, she said, she has visited her therapist twice, complaining of mounting anxiety.
She wants to be able to check her e-mail and voicemail to make sure she hasn’t missed anything important. But the rules of the shutdown bar her from doing that.
“It’s definitely depressing,” she said. “I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this situation.”