When Environmental Protection Agency workers in Atlanta learned the government shutdown would result in the furlough of their pay, they didn’t just pack up and leave — instead, they planned to continue responding to pollution sites.
When the shutdown hit, 94 percent of the agency’s 16,000 employees nationwide were put on indefinite furloughs. Without the workforce, the agency halted its emergency response division, which deals with investigations related to water contamination, toxic spills and other pollution concerns.
According to a poll commissioned by the Natural Resource Defense Council, the decision to shut down the EPA’s response division was an unpopular one among Americans, with two-thirds of respondents saying they opposed the move.
“Americans count on the EPA to protect our air, water and health,” David Goldston, director of government affairs for NRDC said in a press release. “The House extremists who virtually shut down this vital work were way out of step with the American people. The public understands that the EPA is a needed guardian of our environment and health. They expect protection from pollution — and they wanted our environmental guardians back on the job.”
For those Atlanta workers who were temporarily out of work, sitting back and not responding to known reports of water contamination wasn’t an option. Instead, on Oct. 8, EPA workers banded together to respond independently to reports of waste dumped in the Chattahoochee River, one of the city’s largest.
When workers arrived with kayaks for clean-up efforts, they discovered the boat ramps they were relying on were missing — more fallout from the government shutdown, as they’re managed by the National Parks Service.
EPA workers then turned their attention to a nearby urban stream that had also been reported as a polluted site. The South Fork Peachtree Creek was key for EPA workers, as it flows into a nature preserve.
According to Yes! Magazine, the EPA volunteers were joined by furloughed staffers for the Center of Disease Control and Prevention for what came to be known as “Federal Furlough for Public Service Day.”
“It may sound sappy, but all of us really believe that our life’s work is to protect and restore rivers and streams for people and animals that rely on them — paid or not,” EPA Biologist Lisa Gordon told Yes! Magazine.
On Thursday, the federal shutdown came to a halt, opening the doors of many federal agencies, including the EPA. Vice President Joe Biden greeted employees at the EPA headquarters in Washington D.C. Thursday, welcoming furloughed workers back with muffins.
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