Shutdown EPA workers clean up a river anyway

In response to the federal government shutdown, a group of Environmental Protection Agency staffers in Georgia made cleaning up a local creek a 'do it yourself' project.

Reuters/EPA Handout
Drum skimmers and a boom are used in a tributary to contain a 5,000-barrel oil spill from an Exxon pipeline rupture in Mayflower, Ark., in April 2013. During the current government shutdown EPA workers in Georgia cleaned up a creek on their own, despite being on an unpaid furlough.

Scientists with the Water Protection Division of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Atlanta may be out of a paycheck for now, but they're not giving up on service.

On Oct. 8, 15 staffers from the agency's Atlanta office headed down to a trash-filled urban stream that a local business owner had complained about, and cleaned it up.

"As we planned the cleanup, we had to exchange cell phone numbers because we usually use our work email and phones to communicate in the office—and, well, all of that was going to be shut down, too," said Lisa Gordon, biologist.

Because of the shutdown, 94 percent of the 16,204 total EPA employees have been placed on indefinite furlough, according to the agency's contingency plan. Agency investigations of toxic air emissions, water contamination, and waste-dumping have been suspended.

The Water Protection Division staff began planning the cleanup as soon as the furlough was announced, according to Gordon. One of the office workers who had experience organizing cleanups pitched the idea to those who owned kayaks, which the team anticipated needing to access the river.

By the next day, several employees were posting the plan on Facebook.

"The response was quick and unanimous," Gordon said.

The group had planned to go to the Chattahoochee, one of the larger rivers in the area, to remove trash from the water and shoreline. That plan was hindered by another result of the government shutdown: The boat ramps maintained by the National Park Service were not in service.

The volunteers gave up on the Chattahoochee and decided to clean up a stream that "needed some love," as Gordon put it. The small, unnamed tributary to the South Fork Peachtree Creek leads right into a nearby nature preserve.

The EPA staffers also proposed that other furloughed workers join them in declaring Oct. 8 "Federal Furlough for Public Service Day." The employees donated their time in what they're referring to as a meaningful, positive service project. Furloughed staff members at the nearby Centers for Disease Control and Prevention joined in the effort.

"It may sound sappy," Gordon said, "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."

• Cynthia Daniel wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Cynthia is an education intern at YES!

This article originally appeared in YES! Magazine.

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