By Valerie Volcovici
(Reuters) - The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency will take one of the biggest hits of any federal agency if the government shuts down this week, operating with under 7 percent of its employees, according to guidance issued by the agency.
Among those furloughed would be most workers at the Office of Air and Radiation, which is in charge of writing and implementing most of the EPA's major air pollution rules. The clock would also stop, for now, on the EPA's eagerly-awaited proposal on renewable fuel volume standards for 2014.
The EPA said its plan for dealing with a shutdown would classify 1,069 employees, out of 16,205, as essential. These employees would continue to work if Congress fails to secure a budget deal by midnight Monday to avoid disruption to federal funding.
Taking the air and radiation unit off the grid will tighten timelines to meet certain court-imposed deadlines, said one expert.
"People are not going to be able to be working on these rules at home," said Dina Kruger, an environmental regulation consultant and former climate change director at the EPA, who worked at the agency when the government shut down in 1996.
In their guidance to employees, agencies have been clear: government-issued equipment should be returned to home base and work cellphones are not to be used.
Employees have been instructed to come into the office for up to four hours on Tuesday if the government shuts down, to set up voicemail and email "out-of-the office" messages and to secure work documents. They will not be allowed to check those accounts from home or conduct any work that has been pending.
Kruger added though that for EPA rules due in 2014 under President Barack Obama's climate action plan, the agency should be able to complete its work on time, even if it has "to work a little harder" - depending on the length of the shutdown.
"There are a lot of complicated issues in these current rulemakings and more time is better than less time in terms of addressing them," Kruger said.
The EPA on September 20 unveiled new emissions standards for new power plants. The proposal will undergo an extensive public comment period over the next few months after which the agency will revise the proposal. A shutdown would delay the comment period as well.
In June of 2014 the EPA is due to publish a wider reaching proposal to regulate carbon emissions from the country's existing power plants. Finalizing that rule, which will involve close cooperation with all 50 states, is expected to be a time consuming process.
The EPA's proposals for 2014 U. S. biofuel use targets were sent to the White House in late August and remain under review at the Office of Management and Budget. The targets are due to be finalized in December but that deadline could slip depending on the length of a shutdown.
Also facing furloughs is the unit of the EPA that enforces regulations by taking legal action against an air or water polluter. Just 182 of the enforcement unit's 804 employees are exempted from furloughs.
If a company violates EPA rules, Kruger said the agency can go back and enforce past problems if a violation is identified after the fact.
For companies wishing to build or expand a facility, the shutdown may result in further delays as the agency's ability to issue environmental permits will grid to a near halt.
"Permitting does not qualify (as essential), so people should expect delays in permit processing and other licensing and approval processes," said Scott Fulton, former EPA general counsel until January this year and an attorney at Beveridge and Diamond.
"This is a decidedly bad thing for the country. Everybody pays, including the regulated community."
Personnel staying on board would be limited to those involved in public health and safety, including the safe use of hazardous materials and protection of federal property, such as lands, buildings, equipment and research facilities.
Staff will be on hand in the event of emergencies, such as "in the event of a water related incident where the threat to human life or property is imminent," according to the EPA plan.
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici in New York; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)