EPA employees tackle hurricane relief efforts despite shrinking funds, workforce

The Environmental Protection Agency faces reduced staff, dwindling finances, and a spot right in the center of Congress’ budgetary chopping block, and that doesn’t even count recovering from two hurricanes.

EPA employees and volunteers are out in Texas and Florida, working alongside disaster relief crews to help clean up communities, an example that union leaders say highlights not only the volatility of the environment, but the necessity of a fully-funded public health agency.

“We were kind of gearing up for the idea of doing more with less, and realignment, and understanding as good civil servants that we follow the chain of command, we work for any administration, it doesn’t matter — we do the job,” said Clovis Steib, president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1003 in Region 6, which includes Texas and its contiguous states. “But when you realize you’re facing this sort of a cut, and then you have a natural disaster put on top of it, obviously priorities will have to change, and I want to know what’s going to get left off the table, what’s going to be disinvested from, because there’s just not enough money and resources to go around.”

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Priscilla Oliver, president of AFGE Local 534 in Region 4, which is based in Atlanta, Georgia, said she left a home without power to make her way to Washington, D.C. for AFGE’s press conference and rally in support of EPA.

“At this point we too have been in the hurricane,” Oliver told Federal News Radio. “We are the boots on the ground for Region 4, which covers eight states, the southern states. Our normal work is to cover those areas anyway, so this just makes us step it up a little bit more. We’ve got more boots on the ground and we’re having more discussions about what we need to do. We’re coordinating with the other federal, state and local partners to make sure that people have safe water, safe air, safe land. Along with that, you’ve got to have safe food, so we’re working with all our federal partners.”

EPA union leaders and environmental advocates hope the agency will also find a partner in Congress, as lawmakers iron out the final version of the fiscal 2018 budget. Congress passed a continuing resolution Sept. 8, which includes emergency funding for hurricane recovery efforts. It expires Dec. 8.

House appropriators in July proposed a $7.5 billion budget, a cut of roughly $528 million from fiscal 2017, and $1.9 billion above what the White House requested for the agency.

An additional $250 million has been proposed for state revolving funds, explained John O’Grady, president of the AFGE Council 238, but that still only brings the budget up to about $7.8 billion.

“In 2001, the agency’s budget was $7.8 billion,” O’Grady said during the event at the National Press Club. “Now if you move forward and put that into 2017 dollars, that would be equivalent to $10.8 billion. We are grossly underfunded and have been grossly underfunded for years. Secondly, our staffing has gone from a high of 18,100 in 1999 and now we’re down at a level below the figure in 1988 [under 14,400 employees]. That is not enough people and not enough money to run an agency that protects human health and the environment.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), said cutting the EPA’s budget back to “pre-Reagan era funding levels, will have a disastrous effect on the American people.”

Fortunately, said Dingell —who introduced a bill earlier this year that would prevent appropriated funding from being used to close any EPA office — Congress has the final say on the agency’s funding, which in turn means it is up to the public to make their voices heard.

“That’s what happened in the Great Lakes,” Dingell said, referring to bipartisan push back on President Donald Trump’s proposal to completely defund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. “We ended up increasing the amount of appropriations. That’s what happens when you make your voices heard.”

‘You still have to keep working’

Along with EPA’s shrinking budget is a shrinking workforce. During the summer EPA  informed employees that more than 1,200 positions were targeted for early retirements and buyouts.

O’Grady said across the agency, roughly 370 employees have left through Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIP) and Voluntary Early Retirement Authority (VERA), and another 30 or so have left through regular retirement.

Steib said he’s lost about 34 people, including managers and one branch chief who handles water issues. He said he’s worried what, once the hurricane response has ended, the agency will do about its long-term workforce issues.

“We’re not hiring any new people to replace people, so we’re doing a lot of shuffling, which means you’re going to divest and dis-invest from other programs to get the talent,” Steib said. “But there will be a learning curve, you just can’t switch from one [area]to the next and expect to have omnipotent powers and make the right decisions. It might be a little bit of a stumble, I hope not. We’ve got great people, very qualified, very intelligent people, but it’s enough to ask them to do day-to-day jobs without doing Herculean tasks on top of it.”

Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said she’s worried more EPA employees will leave as their lives are made miserable at the agency.

“We’re already hearing reports of EPA staff reporting working conditions that are pretty jaw dropping,” Hitt said. “Staff being told not to bring enforcement actions against polluters, being told to rewrite strong public health safeguards that they had a very hand in writing in the first place, being told to refuse to provide documents to the public, and being told not to create written records of what’s happening inside the agency.”

But Oliver credited EPA  employees with understanding that when the going gets tough, the tough get to work.

“We have lots of people who are just dedicated to the profession and to the cause, and so in spite of what’s going on around you, we’ve learned that you still have to keep working,” Oliver said, wiping tears from her cheeks. “If you don’t have a great boss, you still have to keep working. If the money’s not there, you still have to keep working. No matter what happens to you, if you’re in a federal job or any job, you have to keep that job until you get another job. We all need the money to keep going, our families depend on us, and so we just keep going. That’s kind of the attitude. People are not sad, they’re not worried; they are worried to a sense, but they’re not proclaiming ‘I’m worried.'”