By Doug Moss and Roddy Scheer
The border wall shutdown is impacting environmental efforts.
The border wall shutdown is impacting environmental efforts.

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 email
      No one is happy about the partial shutdown of the federal government as President Donald Trump plays hardball with Congress on funding for his pet project, a wall on the southern border. 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 to furlough some or all staff.
      For its part, the Environmental Protection Agency curtailed the vast majority of its work once federal funding dried up Dec. 28, with only national security and emergency staff staying on. More than 13,000 EPA employees have been furloughed and more than 100 agency offices across the country closed. Until the border wall impasse is broken, the EPA has no staff to continue hazardous waste cleanup 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, the environmental protections we 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).”
      About two-thirds of national parks 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 Park Service personnel -- with the exception of firefighters monitoring active burns 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 slow down maintenance projects by months or years.
     While this closure of national parks is an annoyance to Americans planning a visit, it is also an economic problem. The nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association reports that the park service has lost upward 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 much-needed income.
     Despite closures at the EPA, the National Park Service and other agencies related to the environment, the federal push to open more land and offshore waters to fossil fuel extraction continues unabated. According to The Guardian, the Interior Department hasn’t slowed 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 nonprofit Sierra Club.


      How to fight anti-environmental policies

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