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After a prolonged debate over the Congressional budget and the effective date of the new healthcare law, Democrats and Republicans have failed to reach an agreement on appropriations bills for the coming year. That means the federal government has effectively shut down for the foreseeable future, closing all non-essential government agencies, sending home an estimated 1.2 million federal employees, and potentially delaying paychecks for the remaining workers kept on staff. The shutdown will also stymie climate research, close all national parks, and reduce the EPA’s workforce by 93.5%. Read on to learn what the US government shutdown means for the environment.
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The shutdown won’t affect Social Security, Medicare, air travel, mail delivery, the military, or national security, but unfortunately almost every other government service is fair game. Agencies set up to protect the environment and human health will be the hardest hit during this period. Here are the major agencies that stand to be affected by the crisis:
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
NOAA will continue monitoring the weather (mostly through automated weather stations and satellites), but won’t be able to continue any climate research. It’s going to have to shut down its 12 marine sanctuaries and may have to call its research ships back into port. Don’t worry about your ability to check the weather forecast — National Weather Service meteorologists have been deemed essential and will stay on duty.
Department of the Interior
Perhaps the most visible effect of the shutdown will be the closing of all national parks, museums, and monuments. As of today, no new visitors will be allowed to enter any national parks, and campers who are currently in the parks will be given 48 hours to pack up and leave. Out of the National Park Service’s 24,645 employees, 21,379 will be furloughed. The National Zoo and Smithsonian Institution will also shut down. This won’t just be a depressing reminder of the Republicans’ lack of concern for conservation, it will also cut down on tourism in affected areas and result in an estimated loss of $30 million a day.
The shutdown is going to hit renewable energy projects hard. While inspections of offshore oil rigs will continue, the Department of the Interior will furlough most of its employees. Only 13,797 out of 72,562 have been deemed essential. All current work on offshore renewable energy projects and the department’s five-year offshore oil drilling plan will be suspended.
US Forest Service employees will face furloughs during peak forest fire season, as well as employees of the US Geological Survey. While emergency flood, earthquake, and volcano monitoring will continue, water quality data won’t be available.
The Environmental Protection Agency
The effects may be less obvious to most ordinary people than a national park shutdown, but business at the EPA is about to grind to a halt. Only 6.5% of the EPA’s workforce will stay on the job, 1,069 out of a force of 16,205. Of those, only half have been deemed essential by the federal government; the rest are being funded by alternate sources.
Superfund sites will continue to be maintained at some sites, but only if stopping work might pose an “imminent threat” to a nearby community. (Clean-up at 505 Superfund sites in 47 states will be suspended.) Animals in EPA labs will continue to be cared for, and a skeleton crew will be kept on staff to respond to any environmental disasters, but that’s about it. Workers carrying out vital duties will only be paid long enough to manage those tasks, and then they have to immediately leave work again. The agency also won’t be able to offer new grants or pay existing grant obligations until the shutdown ends.
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Department of Energy
Only 1,113 out of the department’s 13,814 employees will be exempted from the shutdown. Their main duties will be to protect and maintain equipment and property, including keeping America’s nuclear reactors running safely. They’ll be keeping a limited staff on hand to deal with questions of waste management, health safety, the stabilization and disposition of nuclear materials, and the management of nuclear weapons.
Health and Human Services
Agencies like the CDC and FDA will continue to operate at a reduced capacity during this time — with about half of the department’s 78,686 employees being asked to stay at home. Any staff who directly serve vulnerable populations will be kept on board, and the FDA will continue to handle emergencies, high-risk recalls, and civil and criminal investigations.
What won’t continue is the CDC’s seasonal flu vaccine program. And any outbreak of a new strain of flu could prove to be disastrous, as the agency’s ability to respond to a crisis or distribute up-to-date treatment information will be significantly delayed. Similarly, the FDA won’t be able to continue food and drug inspections, nor will it be able to maintain most of its current laboratory research until funding resumes. (Labs will be maintained, but the experiments itself will be halted.) Ironically, the health insurance exchange program at the heart of the budget dispute will unroll at the beginning of October as planned.
How Long Will the Shutdown Last?
So far, no one has any idea how long the shutdown might last. Similar shutdowns have occurred 17 times since 1977, but each one was very different. In a best-case scenario, the shutdown may only last a few days and not significantly affect most government functions. (In fact, the shortest shutdowns on record lasted less than a day.) But it could also drag on for weeks until Republicans and Democrats are able to reach a compromise. Because Congress has failed to pass any appropriations bills for the year so far, Senior Republicans have reportedly estimated that the closure will last a week or more.
Depending on how desperate Congress becomes to pass a budget, the effects could be far-reaching — part of the reason for appropriations disputes in recent years has been due to Republicans insisting on deep spending cuts across the board. There are also concerns that the shutdown could end up being just part of a larger battle over the federal debt limit.
The Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, spoke for many of us in a recent statement:
“House Republicans have refused to pass routine legislation to fulfill the most basic aspect of their job: keeping the government open and working for American families.
The government shutdown we now face means no cops on the beat against toxic pollution. It means that we’ll have to dress like oil executives if we want to visit our national parks and monuments. It means hundreds of thousands of Americans are at home instead of at work. And it means House Republicans who couldn’t achieve their reckless agenda through elections or legislation are willing to sacrifice the health of our families and our communities to simply score political points.
The Sierra Club’s 2.1 million members and supporters agree with President Obama and Senator Reid: any proposal demanding that Americans sacrifice the health of our planet and our communities in exchange for keeping the government open is not a deal, but blackmail of the worst kind. Rather than make the American people pay the cost in lost jobs and polluted air and water, House Republicans need to ditch the political posturing and get back to work.”
Hopefully, this sort of high-profile public pressure will start to get to the Republicans and force them to make reasonable compromises to get the government back up and running as soon as possible.