You probably remember that hilarious GOP televised debate two years ago, where Texas governor and then-presidential hopeful Rick Perry was trying to name five federal agencies he wanted to close down. He mentioned the departments of commerce and education, but then he stumbled, having forgot the other three.
His colleague and eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney tried to help him by suggesting the Environmental Protection Agency as one.
At first Perry agreed, saying, "EPA! There you go," but then changed his mind, saying EPA needed to only be "rebuilt." Not able to remember the final three, he settled with an "Oops."
But perhaps Romney’s suggestion was prescient because EPA is, for all intents, shuttered, thanks to the government shutdown.
EPA chief Gina McCarthy warned last week that if the government closed it would mean that her agency "effectively shuts down."
"The vast majority of people at EPA will not be working," said McCarthy at an event sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor newspaper, as reported in The HIll.
She wasn’t kidding. Of the 16,205 employees at EPA, less than a 1,000 are expected to go to work under the shutdown, according to their contingency plan. For "excepted" activities EPA must perform to ensure the safety of human life and protection of property, only 613 employees, or 3.85 percent of their total capacity, will remain on board. For "exempt" staff — those engaged in military, law enforcement or health care activities, or those paid by a source other than congressional annual appropriations — only 296, or 1.83 percent of the employees will remain on board.
If a hurricane happened to strike — we’re just a little past the halfway point of hurricane season, which ends November 30 — EPA does retain staff that could respond by helping contain oil spills, hazardous waste disposal and other needed monitoring. They will continue legal counseling and litigation for certain high profile cases, the BP oil spill civil trial for example.
Also untouched by the shutdown are many activities EPA is helping carry out to restore damages from the BP oil spill, which is paid for with BP fines, and also "Superfund" activities, which is remediation of areas where hazardous waste has built up or is out of control. Superfund sites — for example a place where a shuttered chemical plant once operated, but either didn’t dispose of its materials properly or didn’t bother at all — are often located in low-income communities or communities of color, and its funded by billing companies responsible for the pollution.
At the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference last month, Lisa Garcia, EPA associate assistant administrator for environmental justice, said that despite the cuts they would still try to preserve their grant-giving program that helps community-based organizations build capacity — the kind of grants that allow those organizations to assist in Superfund remediation in their own neighborhoods.
"Even during the time of sequestration and budget reductions we hold our small environmental justice grants closely to our heart and no one can touch it," said Garcia. "I don’t want to say you can cut other things because we don’t want any cuts, but we will look seriously at other cuts to save those capacity building grants. They are important to communities and we recognize that."