The Way We Work Now

I’m a Federal Employee Who Saw Trump Slash Environmental Protections

Already it is a new day at the EPA under Biden

Photo: Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Way We Work Now is a series chronicling how people’s lives and careers have fundamentally changed because of the pandemic.

Brian Kelly, 47, is an emergency responder for the Environmental Protection Agency and member of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He spoke with Mai Tran about the shifting dynamic of working on environmental protections under the Trump administration compared to what Joe Biden proposes for his presidency.

I have been doing environmental work for 24 years, more than half my life; 18 of those years I have been working for the EPA. My title is on-scene coordinator. We go out to industrial accidents, train derailments, and abandoned facilities that have heavy contamination that needs to be removed right away. We also deploy nationally. I worked on the anthrax cleanup in Washington, D.C., the recovery of Space Shuttle Columbia in Texas, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Superstorm Sandy in New York, and the BP oil spill in Biloxi, Mississippi.

The last couple of years have seen an unprecedented attack on the federal workforce and the environment, all coming from the Trump administration. Here in region five, which covers Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, the EPA’s staffing level has fallen by 20%. Those staffing cuts changed how the EPA operated. While we were out in the field doing environmental cleanup work, a lot of our support staff was missing. We need support people to go to libraries and do record searches to find out who is responsible for contamination. I’m spending federal funds to do emergency cleanups, but we also need to be able to conserve those resources and make sure that the polluter is held accountable. EPA’s policy is supposed to be that the polluter pays, but if you don’t have support staff to find the polluter, that doesn’t occur.

As for the scientists and engineers working at EPA, the former president signed executive orders that stripped federal employees of some of our most basic bargaining rights. There were no negotiations. They just imposed a very punitive contract on us. They kicked us out of our office in Chicago and stripped us of our ability to bring up health and safety concerns in the workplace. The union was not even allowed to put a leaflet on the bulletin board in the lunchroom. They took down our website. It was very much about humiliating the union and disempowering federal workers.

It really radicalized a large number of us. One of the things Trump’s order did was make it more difficult to collect union dues through the federal agency, so we moved our collection onto a server that the union-controlled. We spoke to reporters and went to D.C. every year. In February of 2019, we met with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and asked them to sign an EPA Bill of Rights that ensured scientific integrity.

During Covid-19, the administration would not bargain on protecting all EPA workers. They wanted to very narrowly focus it on some of the workers in Chicago and leave people like myself, who were based in Ann Arbor, out of that bargaining. Our immediate frontline supervisors have done the best they could as far as ordering supplies, but I think there was an enormous lack of coordination from the former administration in headquarters because the administration did not take the pandemic seriously.

There was no bulk buying of PPE, and the regions were sort of left on their own to try to figure things out. We did not initially have emergency response procedures in place. There was not a good system of tracking who was going where. We’ve had multiple federal employees come down with Covid-19 over the last 10 months since this all started occurring. Now we are trying to limit going out in the field if it’s not necessary. We have a virtual incident management team working with on-the-ground local and state officials and use drones and helicopter videos to do assessment work.

I am very hopeful now that President Biden has taken office. Even before he did, his transition team agreed to meet with the EPA unions. They spent more than an hour and a half listening to the concerns we had about Covid-19, and how our workforce doesn’t look like the communities we serve, that we need more people of color, that we need environmental justice, and that we need to do a 180. Rather than having EPA officials sit down and meet with industry, we need EPA officials to sit down with environmental justice communities, and our environmental allies at places like the Sierra Club.

They were very receptive to that message. They even sent us thank-you notes for meeting with them. The Friday after President Biden took office, he canceled all of Trump’s executive orders that were an attack on our official time and our contracts. Already it is a new day at the EPA. There is a lot of hope and faith with rejoining the Paris climate accord and his talk about environmental justice.

Our union strongly believes that this administration and environmental justice needs to focus on the Black, Brown, and Latinx communities that are most likely to have health effects due to their proximity to industry and legacy contamination. It’s not about kowtowing to industry and pushing through pipelines and making it easier to pollute anymore. It really needs to focus on protecting and cleaning up the communities most vulnerable to pollution — and if it doesn’t, we’re going to say something.

writer based in new york

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