How the shutdown hamstrung agency’s giant grant machine

By Kevin Bogardus | 01/28/2019 01:16 PM EST

Among the backlog facing thousands of EPA employees returning to work today after the partial government shutdown ended will be rebooting EPA’s $4 billion grant-making apparatus, which is now saddled with missed deadlines, canceled meetings and piled-up applications.

EPA headquarters in Washington.

EPA headquarters in Washington. Robin Bravender/File/E&E News

With the partial government shutdown over, EPA’s work is just beginning.

The agency reopened today with thousands of its employees returning to work. Among their backlog will be rebooting EPA’s massive grant-making apparatus, which is now saddled with missed deadlines, canceled meetings and piled-up applications.

The agency each year awards more than $4 billion — or about half its current annual budget — in grants to states, local governments and outside organizations. In a website notice, EPA acknowledges potential problems stemming from the shutdown and says it will work with "the grantee community" to extend application deadlines and address other issues.


Scott Clow, environmental programs director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, told E&E News he doesn’t envy EPA for its work ahead to recover from the shutdown.

"They are going to have to work extra hard this year. When they get back to work, they are going to hit it head-on," Clow said. "They are going to have to do more work in a shorter period of time."

Clow estimates the tribe receives between $600,000 and $1 million in grant money annually from EPA. That funding pays for the majority of the tribe’s environmental work, such as monitoring air and water quality, assessing pollutants found on its reservation, and providing scientific analysis on environmental issues facing the tribe.

"Most of it. We have a couple of other grants that help pay for it, but that is the lion’s share," Clow said.

Clow has been preparing to apply for EPA’s State and Tribal Assistance Grants, which were delayed by the shutdown.

"We are a month behind the whole process because the funding notice has not gone out yet," Clow said. "The further along we get, the tougher it gets for EPA to get those funding agreements out the door and funded by the end of September, which is what needs to happen. The clock is ticking, and that’s worrisome."

The magnitude of any shutdown-related hang-ups is so far unclear. Asked, for example, whether Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee that helps set EPA’s budget, had gotten any reports of issues involving Targeted Airshed Grants and other programs, a spokeswoman said last week she had no information to share.

The shutdown has left other tribes concerned about EPA funding considered vital for their environmental work. Gerald Wagner, the Blackfeet Nation’s director of environmental programs, said the agency will be facing a backlog of grant work from the shutdown.

"I’m just curious at their ability to get these grant applications read, reviewed and funded. They’re already backed up six weeks," Wagner said.

Wagner submitted one application to EPA during the funding lapse for a grant under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act, which was due last week. The grant, worth a maximum of $100,000, is key support for the tribe’s environmental work.

Wagner sought guidance from EPA, only hearing back that grant deadlines would be extended, although the agency couldn’t provide more details at that point. Wagner, who also serves as vice chairman of EPA’s National Tribal Caucus, said at least one tribal meeting held by the agency was canceled during the shutdown.

"A lot of stuff that was planned was kiboshed," he said. "A lot of the meetings we were having, even the phone calls, were put on hold."

Wagner believes EPA might be releasing grant funds later than expected because of the shutdown.

"So instead of August, we might have to wait until next December before they release the funds," he said. "It just leaves you with that uncertainty."

Others found no one was in when they contacted EPA during the funding lapse. Laura Brion, executive director of the Childhood Lead Action Project, said she dialed into a conference call scheduled earlier this month by the agency to discuss an environmental justice grant that her Providence, R.I.-based group intends to apply for. Its closing date is Feb. 15 — the same day that funding from the latest short-term spending package to reopen the government will run out.

"We called in, and there was nobody on the other end. Not only did we not get the memo, but I don’t think the memo got sent in the first place," she said.

Brion’s group, which works to eliminate childhood lead poisoning in Rhode Island, has won the EPA grant before, which is worth up to $30,000.

"I used funding like this to leverage other dollars," Brion said. "It’s close enough to support one full-time organizer in a region of the state, and it’s a significant part of our budget."

Now, EPA’s grantees are going to have to play catch-up, too. The agency can expect to be swamped with calls and emails this week from those waiting on grant funds across the country.

"I will probably be making a lot of phone calls to figure things out," said Brion, who has questions about EPA’s environmental justice grant.

Wagner said, "On Monday, I don’t know if they are going to answer any calls, because they are going to have so many."

Brion said she’s glad the government has reopened but hopes lawmakers can secure long-term funding soon.

"Three weeks is better than nothing, but I think we deserve a whole lot more," she said.

Reporter Sean Reilly contributed.