Is the “Border Wall” Shutdown Affecting the Safety of Our Air and Water?

Dear EarthTalk: Has the recent “border wall” shutdown affected the federal government’s ability to safeguard our air and water quality and otherwise protect our environment and public lands?

– Peter Nicholson, via e-mail

No one is happy about the recent partial shutdown of the federal government in the U.S. as President Trump plays hardball with Congress on allocating funds for his “border wall.” While essential government services typically remain open in any government shutdown, it’s up to individual agencies and their administrators to decide how much of a presence to maintain during a shutdown and whether or not to furlough some or all staff.

For its part, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) curtailed the vast majority of its work once federal funding dried up on December 28, with only national security and emergency staff staying on. Some 13,000+ EPA employees have been furloughed with more than 100 agency offices across the country now closed until further notice. Until the border wall impasse is broken, the EPA has no staff to continue hazardous waste clean-up work at Superfund sites, inspect power plants to ensure compliance with air quality standards, review toxic substances and pesticides nor respond to Freedom of Information requests.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the environmental protections we otherwise take for granted “grind to a halt” during a shutdown: “Chemical facilities are not inspected. Agricultural technical assistance projects are shut down. The protection of species stops. Research is also disrupted, which can lead to gaps in data or entire lost field seasons (and huge wastes of taxpayer dollars).”

As for national parks, about two-thirds remain open but have limited services, so visitors shouldn’t expect the same level of sanitation or monitoring that is customary. While there is no one to collect entrance fees, likewise there is no one to pump out toilets, empty trash or intervene in case of interpersonal disputes or wildlife encounters. All National Parks Service (NPS) personnel (except firefighters monitoring active burns or watch areas and essential leadership at headquarters) have been furloughed.

The Department of Interior has authorized individual parks to dip into their entrance and recreation fees to help pay for essential/emergency services during the shutdown, although the use of these funds will likely slow down maintenance projects by months or years as a result.

While this closure of national parks is an annoyance to Americans planning a visit, it’s also an economic problem. The non-profit National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) reports that NPS has lost upwards of $5 million in entrance fee revenue since the shutdown began, while local businesses and concession operators dependent upon servicing park visitors are also losing out on much-needed income.

Despite closures at the EPA, the NPS and other agencies related to the environment, the federal push to open up more land and offshore waters to fossil fuel extraction continues unabated. According to The Guardian, the Interior Department hasn’t slowed down efforts to issue permits for oil drilling on federal land and in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s Arctic.

“While he’s closed the government to the American people, Trump has hung up an ‘open for business’ sign for corporate polluters,” reports Melinda Pierce, legislative director at the non-profit Sierra Club.

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