In October of last year, EPA employees, along with hundreds of thousands of other federal employees, were furloughed due to a lapse in appropriations. During the government shutdown, 94% of EPA staff was unable to do the important work that Americans depend on for a clean and healthy environment.
Our scientists and inspectors were prevented from keeping our air and water safe to breathe and drink. Vehicle certifications couldn’t be completed, industrial chemicals and pesticides couldn’t be evaluated, and hazardous waste sites couldn’t be cleaned. Small business couldn’t receive our assistance in learning about grants and loans to continue building our clean energy economy. And on a personal level, our employees and their families made tremendous sacrifices just to get by.
But through it all, I heard stories from furloughed EPA employees who volunteered in their communities, in food banks and shelters – still finding a way to give back. The stories were nothing short of amazing, which is why I’d like to share some of them. I’m so proud to work alongside the EPA community every day, including the tough ones. The creative, innovative work both inside and outside the Agency by EPA staff speaks for itself, and we’re going to continue to find ways to celebrate that work. Here’s a sample of those stories of compassion, perseverance, and volunteerism during the shutdown:
Long Island: EPA Region 2 employees donated over 200 volunteer community service hours at an environmental center in Garden City, Long Island. “The 9 acre site…is a unique environmental center that includes a bird sanctuary and an arboretum created from a county-owned stormwater basin.” The group worked with the environmental center to remove trees damaged by Hurricane Sandy and the November 2012 blizzard, plant new ones, and install new post and rail fencing.
Washington, DC: Members of EPA’s Emerging Leaders Network prepared meals at DC Central Kitchen, which helps feed 5,000 homeless and low-income DC residents every day: “While many of us volunteer regularly through ELN, or independently, volunteering during the shutdown was a chance to do some good in spite of a bad situation, to come together as early-career public servants and show that while the government could be shut down, our commitment to public service can’t be shut down.
Georgia: EPA Region 4 colleagues came together for a volunteer stream clean-up at a tributary to the South Fork Peachtree Creek, which leads to a nearby nature preserve in Atlanta, Georgia. “The stream was completely covered in trash and invasive plants and looked as if it had been used as a local dumping ground. On Tuesday, October 8 – just one week after the shutdown – 13 furloughed EPA Region 4 employees and two furloughed CDC employees descended on the site. In just 4 hours, the volunteers cleaned the entire creek, recovering an estimated 350 pounds of metal to be recycled. Another 30 bags of trash and recyclable materials were also removed from the creek.”
North Carolina: Co-workers at EPA Research Triangle Park, North Carolina “got creative” when the materials they needed to lead an environmental apprenticeship at a local middle school weren’t accessible due to the shutdown. Not wanting to disappoint their young apprentices, they adjusted their lesson plan to focus on technical skills, including engineering and problem solving. Though not what they planned, this revised approach to teaching “has helped us to highlight the fact that protecting the environment requires people with many different skills.”
Philadelphia: EPA Region 3 attorneys honored the memory of their colleague, Benjamin Kalkstein, who passed away in 2000. They write, “Ben spent many hours hiking and biking in the Wissahickon Valley area of Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, and he always took a trash bag with him to clean up debris left behind by others. We installed a bench in his honor in 2000, adjacent to one of the most historic parts of the Park … While we had refurbished the bench in 2012, the area around it had become overgrown with vegetation that was killing trees and shrubs and obscuring the view.” Together, a group of Region 3 attorneys spent 12 hours weeding, pruning and planting 60 spring flowering bulbs around and near the bench. Of “honoring our colleague, friend, and mentor,” they wrote, “We were merely following the example Ben set for us.”