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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Budget Upsets: EPA Shutdown Backload

Air Date: Week of

The Environmental Protection Agency has been hit hard by the recent federal government shutdown. Steve Curwood talks with John Cushman, a reporter with the New York Times about the many repercussions of the closure on businesses and citizens.


CURWOOD: If you live near one of the nation's over 1200 Superfund sites, and wonder why activity was even less than normal, there's a good reason. The slowdowns and shutdowns at the Federal Government have left a huge backlog of work for all agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency. When EPA workers finally reported to their offices after the latest round of furloughs, they faced over a quarter of a million letters needing their attention. Nearly 30,000 phone calls to Agency hotlines had gone unanswered, and more than a million attempts to access EPA information via the Internet had drawn blanks. What does it mean when the EPA falls so far behind? The repercussions have been extensive, according to John Cushman, who covers the environment for the New York Times from Washington.

CUSHMAN: I think the 2 most notable examples are the virtual standstill in enforcement activities of the Environmental Protection Agency, meaning the inspections of treatment plants or factories to make sure that they are adhering to the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and so on. And secondly, on the Superfund side, there are hundreds of sites which have been shut down. One that comes to mind is in Douglasville, Pennsylvania, where there's a 2-acre pile of oil wastes about a dozen feet deep or so, and just open to the elements and leaching into the groundwater and running off into the Schuylkill River.

CURWOOD: What does this mean for public health?

CUSHMAN: It's hard to say right now that there is a public health crisis of any kind as a result of this. But I think there's a real concern at the Agency that something untoward is likely to happen down the road, maybe a cryptosporidian outbreak, maybe a small scale spill that will call attention to the problems of what happens when an agency like this grinds to a halt.

CURWOOD: Clean-up hasn't been the only thing affected. Haven't businesses as well been hurt by the shutdown?

CUSHMAN: Indeed they are. The Pesticide Office at the EPA, for example, is responsible for approving all new applications for new pesticides, and although they've lost 5 weeks of work during the government shutdown, the growing season isn't going to be delayed 5 weeks to accommodate them. That means that a lot of farmers and pesticide manufacturers will not have approval to bring new products to market and to use them in the field. And you have to bear in mind that many new pesticides have environmental benefits. They may require smaller applications, they may be less toxic than the existing pesticides. Certainly many of them are more cost effective and save the farmer money, and for the pesticide manufacturer the return on all that investment is waiting.

CURWOOD: What other businesses are hurting?

CUSHMAN: Oh, it's all over the place. Detroit has automobile emissions tests which the EPA participates in. And then there are many contractors, private companies, who actually do most of the EPA's work when it comes to things like cleaning up Superfund sites or when it comes to administrative functions like data processing. All of these people are being told that there's less money to pay them. And so now they're laying off workers as well.

CURWOOD: Now, if the EPA gets going again with an appropriation, is it just a matter of playing catch-up, or has the Agency been crippled by these delays and shutdowns?

CUSHMAN: Let me just explain briefly what's happening with the Agency's budget right now. The Congress passed a bill that would cut the Agency's 1996 spending by nearly a billion dollars, almost 15%, from what they actually spent last year. President Clinton vetoed that bill. And since that time the Agency has been getting by on a series of stopgap spending measures interrupted by total shutdowns for periods of days or weeks. Now what can the Agency expect? The managers of the EPA tell me that if the funding that they end up with for this year is at the level that was in the bill that the President vetoed, then on about May 1st they will lay off 3,000 to 5,000 of their 17,000 workers. That is, those people will be fired; they'll lose their jobs. If on the other hand, they are required to continue at the partial funding levels of this stopgap or temporary spending measure known as a continuing resolution, then they really believe that in the summer time, June, July, and August, they are going to have to furlough essentially everybody at the Agency. Because right now they've been unable by law to lay off any workers, but they've been operating on only two thirds of their budget. So they've been borrowing next summer's payroll to pay workers today, even though the workers are often at home doing nothing.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, was this shutdown, was this budget impasse in part allowed to go forward because some would like to see the function of the EPA be extinguished? That they'd like to see the Agency not be able to do its work?

CUSHMAN: Well, whenever you have an impasse or gridlock I think you have more than one party involved, and in this case it's hard to say who is ultimately responsible for the shutdown of the EPA. After all, had President Clinton signed the bill that Congress passed, it would have funded the Agency at a higher level that it's now getting. But I think that the thing to bear in mind is that environmental protection enjoys very broad public support. In all the polls people say, by margins of 70% to 30%, that they really want stronger environmental protection. And I think that the Administration recognizes that it has a strong claim on the environmental issue during the election campaign. At the same time, the Congress is trying to change the way that environmental protection is done in this country, and they are responding to very real constituencies as well. I think that the more revolutionary, if you will, members of the Congress may be taking a line out of Lenin's book: you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

CURWOOD: Jack Cushman, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

CUSHMAN: It's been my pleasure.

CURWOOD: John Cushman is a reporter in the Washington Bureau of the New York Times.



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