An employee in EPA's headquarters is infected with the coronavirus, the first Washington, D.C.-based EPA staffer to test positive for the potentially fatal respiratory disease and the third agency employee overall.
The staffer continued to work in EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance after the coronavirus pandemic had begun to take hold in the U.S., but before widespread telework was allowed. Now untold numbers of OECA officials have been ordered to self-quarantine, potentially setting back the agency's efforts to enforce the nation's environmental laws.
The news was announced last night by Lawrence Starfield, the top career enforcement official, to all OECA staff, according to an email viewed by E&E News.
On Monday, EPA leadership learned that a staffer "received a diagnosis at his local hospital of being positive for CoVid-19," Starfield wrote, referring to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The unnamed employee last worked on the sixth floor of the William Jefferson Clinton South Federal Building on March 11 and now "fortunately is recovering at home," he said.
Starfield went on to ask all employees who worked or had meetings in the areas and conference rooms the infected staffer visited to self-quarantine until Friday. That includes anyone who attended a March 11 all-hands meeting for the Office of Site Remediation Enforcement, he said.
"In addition to this office-wide notice, we have contacted specific employees who have been identified as having had contact during this period with the colleague who was diagnosed as positive for CoVid-19," he wrote.
While EPA is now planning to disinfect the areas the infected employee visited — including common areas like the pantry and restrooms — anyone who has spent time there since March 13 "should self-quarantine two weeks from the last day you were in the office," Starfield said.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said last Friday that he expected "that most everyone on the EPA team across the country is working at home, unless there is a compelling mission critical reason for you to be in the office" (Greenwire, March 20).
But union leaders have criticized the agency for being slow to relax its telework restrictions for all EPA employees. On March 6, the agency began loosening its work-from-home policies for Seattle, where the coronavirus was first detected in the United States (Greenwire, March 9).
Yet agency leaders didn't allow widespread teleworking for staffers at EPA's headquarters until after March 15, when the White House Office of Management and Budget called for "maximum telework" for federal employees in the Washington metro area (Greenwire, March 16).
It's unclear how many EPA staffers will now be forced into self-quarantine or how that will affect the agency's enforcement efforts. But already, staff inspections have been getting canceled, and insiders say companies are requesting "force majeure exemptions" from consent decrees. EPA is also "in the process" of developing guidance for state agencies that enforce federal environmental laws, the agency said Monday (Energywire, March 24).
An EPA spokesperson today said the agency "is taking swift action in the event someone becomes symptomatic, or has potentially been exposed to the coronavirus" and confirmed that it "has been notified of three employees who tested positive for COVID 19." The other staffers who've contracted the disease worked out of regional offices in Montana and Boston.
Reporter Timothy Cama contributed.