USDA STRUGGLES WITH WORKLOAD AS RESEARCHERS QUIT: Internal memos show the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be unable to release a number of its regular reports as nearly 80 percent of employees at one of its research branches have left the agency as it relocates to Kansas City, Mo.
The memos obtained by The Hill show USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) will delay or not release a number of nearly complete reports and is quashing other early stage research as it struggles to maintain basic functions with its decreased workforce.
“Due to decreased staffing levels, ERS will for considerable time be unable to provide the same level of breadth and depth in its economic research and outlook analysis as it did in the past,” the memo said before listing reports that will be delayed or discontinued until further notice, including those on major commodities, food stamps and rural economies.
USDA announced in June that it would be moving ERS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City, despite advice from their own internal watchdog that such a move may be illegal.
Figures collected by ERS employees show just 16 Washington-based employees have moved to Kansas City while another 141 have left the agency since the USDA began looking for a new headquarters for its two research organizations. Twenty-four employees slated to move to Kansas City have been given permission to temporarily remain in Washington.
A number of government agencies, farm groups and economists rely on data from ERS to do their jobs.
“You can see in the amount of reports delayed are on a huge variety of topics that are hugely important right now like the opioid epidemic, tariffs and trade. These are important things that need to be dealt with. We can’t offer anything right now because we’re losing so much staff and expertise that can’t easily be replaced,” said Laura Dodson, an ERS employee who serves as vice president of their union, American Federal Government Employee Local 3404.
A warning sign?: The massive flight of ERS staff and the struggle to maintain workflow at the department could be a warning sign to other federal agencies considering uprooting their Washington-based staff.
The Department of Interior announced in July it would be moving 300 D.C.-based Bureau of Land Management employees to locations across the West. Critics say spreading out staff across numerous offices will functionally dismantle the agency.
The ERS memo showed that reports and pages on county-level oil and gas production; high-demand commodities like corn, cotton and soybeans; as well as the food stamp policy database and food pricing will all be delayed or discontinued.
“A lot of those reports are delayed because the entire publishing service team quit — all of our editors, all of our writers, all of our designers. So even if we have the research there, we can’t physically get it out because the team is gone,” Dodson said.
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THEY SPENT HOW MUCH DURING THE SHUTDOWN?: The Trump administration used nearly $10.3 million in reserved park entrance revenues to keep several national parks open during the 35-day government shutdown earlier this year.
The figure, released by the National Park Service (NPS) to The Hill days before the end of this fiscal year, shows how much the administration was willing to spend in reserved park fees to keep the parks open while most of the government was shut down.
The money the Interior Department spent to keep the parks open is usually used for maintenance projects and seasonal hiring. In this case, Interior brought back staff to offer basic visitor services, clean bathrooms, remove trash and to conduct other custodial needs during the shutdown, according to details provided by NPS.
The money was used across more than 100 parks over the 35-day partial government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history, according to internal NPS documents previously reported by The Hill.
Then-acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had initially authorized the NPS to drain the $250 million in revenues known as recreation fees or Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) funds if needed to keep the parks open during the shutdown.
In addition to the $10.3 million spent from those accounts, Interior lost between $10 million and $11 million in visitor fee revenue it could not collect during the shutdown, according to internal emails.
The newly released numbers come the same month the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled that Bernhardt, who is now the Interior secretary, lacked the authority to dip into the FLREA funds, and broke the law on two accounts by doing so.
In their Sept. 5 report, GAO officials blasted Interior for failing to comply with requests for information surrounding their decision to use the recreation fees and for a general lack of responsiveness during the investigation.
“Interior disregarded not only the laws themselves but also the congressional prerogatives that underlie them. Instead of carrying out the law, Interior improperly imposed its own will,” Thomas Armstrong, GAO general counsel, wrote in his 16-page legal opinion.
WHEN YOU PUSH CALIFORNIA, CALIFORNIA PUSHES BACK:
CA senator cries foul over EPA threat…Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is asking a government watchdog to probe a threat from the Trump administration over her state’s highway funding, saying she’s worried “California is being unfairly targeted.”
In a letter sent to EPA Deputy Inspector General Charles Sheehan on Friday, Feinstein requested an investigation into potential “inappropriate political interference” resulting from an EPA letter to California officials threatening to withhold federal highway funding over the state’s poor air quality .
The letter sent Tuesday from EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to the California Air and Resources Board listed a number of backlogs for implementing state air pollution plans the EPA argues are out of compliance with federal standards.
Feinstein requested the IG office look into whether the claims of negligence truly fall with California officials.
“I ask that you investigate whether these reports are, in fact, backlogged as a result of inaction on the part of California jurisdictions,” she wrote. “For example, the letter cites a 1997 state implementation plan from Coachella Valley regarding key ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards. However, the report was previously submitted to EPA and is awaiting EPA approval, not additional county action.”
Feinstein added: “I am concerned that California is being unfairly targeted, and that this issue of backlogged state implementation plans is nothing more than a pretext to attack California, rather than a good-faith effort to help improve California’s air quality.”
The big picture: Wheeler’s letter came a week after the agency moved to revoke the state’s ability to regulate tailpipe emissions at a higher level than the federal government. Vehicle emissions are one of the largest sources of air pollution in California. California and 23 other states sued the Trump administration last Friday over the rule.
Lawsuit part deux… A coalition of nine environmental groups filed suit Friday against the Trump administration for stripping California of its power to set vehicle emissions standards tougher than the federal government’s.
The suit follows one filed by California and 23 other states contesting President Trump‘s decision to revoke the Clean Air Act waiver California has relied on for 50 years to set more stringent standards.
“Congress has consistently recognized the validity of state emissions standards, and we are confident that the court will act as a necessary check on the administration and overturn this unlawful action,” said Mike Landis, an attorney for Environment America, one of the groups suing over the decision.
Trump announced the decision by tweet last week, arguing one uniform standard would be “far safer and much less expensive” and lead to more car production.
The suit, along with California’s case, could prove important in staking out states’ rights.
California was first granted the right to submit environmental waivers for review in 1968 under the Clean Air Act. For decades, the largest state in the nation has been issued waivers allowing it to set air pollution standards higher than that of the federal government due to the state’s unique struggle with air pollution and smog. Thirteen other states choose to use California’s higher standards.
OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:
-Lorenzo becomes the most powerful hurricane to make it so far east in the Atlantic, USA Today reports.
-Climate risk in the housing market has echoes of subprime crisis, study finds, The New York Times reports.
-Brazil says oil in spill along northeast beaches not Brazilian, Reuters reports
-Meet the millionaires helping to pay for climate protests, The New York Times reports
ICYMI: Stories from Friday…
-Feinstein requests probe into Trump EPA threat to withhold California highway funds
-Greta Thunberg: I don’t understand why ‘grown-ups’ mock ‘acting on the science’
-Bullock unveils plan to protect public lands
-USDA nixes release of multiple reports over researcher exodus
–Green groups sue Trump administration over vehicle emissions rule
-Trump administration spent more than $10 million in collected fees to keep parks open during shutdown
-Thousands in New Zealand kick off new climate change marches
-Climate activists return to shut down DC traffic in march to EPA, Trump hotel