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At Independence Mall, federal workers protest Trump budget

Just as public awareness grows over the dangers of lead in the environment, the federal government is planning to cut nearly a third of the budget of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. At a rally of federal employees at Independence Mall in Philly yesterday, an EPA union leader said the government seems to have a vendetta against the EPA.

Gary Morton, President of AFGE Local 3631, speaks to demonstrators at a rally at Independence Mall to protest budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration.
Gary Morton, President of AFGE Local 3631, speaks to demonstrators at a rally at Independence Mall to protest budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration.Read moreCAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer

To Gary Morton, there's a certain irony about the attention now focused on lead poisoning. Just as the public is becoming more aware of lead's dangers, the Trump administration is talking about cutting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget by 31 percent, and eliminating the jobs of 1,200 EPA employees.

"Lead poisoning and soil poisoning — these are the unseen sources of pollution," said Morton, president of Local 3631 of the American Federation of Government Employees, at a noon protest by federal workers at Independence Mall on Thursday. The Trump administration, he said, does not believe in environmental justice and does not "want your inner cities to be clean."

"We need clean water. We need air," he said. "We're here for a serious issue."

Morton, who has worked for the EPA since 1992 and reviews inspection records to make sure underground gasoline tanks don't leak, said the EPA gives grants to community organizations and local governments to inspect and monitor environmental conditions.

"There's a government vendetta against the EPA. I don't understand why they want to hurt the public by punishing the EPA," said Morton whose local represents 700 workers at the EPA.

In budget hearings last week, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said he would be able to achieve most of the cuts through retirements and buyouts.

"I believe that we as an agency, and we as a nation, can be both pro-energy and jobs, and pro-environment." Pruitt said in his first address to agency employees. "That we don't have to choose between the two."

Morton and other AFGE organizers hoped hundreds of federal employees would pop out of nearby federal office buildings to support the rally. About 100 people showed up, looking for shade under nearby trees. Union leaders representing employees from the Veterans Administration, the Social Security Administration, and the National Park Service spoke, as did Patrick Eiding, who heads the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO.

Meanwhile, around the park, a group of Japanese tourists, clearly uninterested, listened as a guide talked about Independence Hall. A psychiatrist, who worries about budget cuts, but also isn't sure he likes the idea of public employee unions, walked his dog. He declined to give his name, saying he had patients on both sides of this issue.

Tour guide Norm Danis, 70, of North Wales, in colonial garb, with his tri-corner hat and lunch on the bench beside him, rested from a morning spent talking to fifth graders from the Bronx about Independence Hall. "If I weren't in costume and working, I'd participate with them," he said about the demonstrators. Danis works for a private tour company.

"I'm very worried about the president and the direction he's taking. How can we not put more resources into people, into education, into the environment?"

Another union leader, David Fitzpatrick, also spoke at the rally.

Beside operating a plant that provides the cooling for all the buildings in Independence Park, Fitzpatrick leads Local 2058, which represents 180 Independence National Park employees, including interpreters, scientists, and maintenance people. He also leads Council 270, an umbrella group of 1,200 to 1,400 National Park Service employees from Maine to West Virginia, who staff the Statue of Liberty park, Shenandoah National Park, and the Cape Cod National Seashore, among others.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told Congress on Tuesday that he plans to cut 4,000 jobs from his department, which includes the National Park Service, by next year. He said the cuts were necessary to balance the budget.

"The president is calling for a 12 percent budget cut in the Department of the Interior," Fitzpatrick said. "We already have a $500 million backlog in deferred maintenance."

Fitzpatrick said the backlog is taking its toll at Independence National Historical Park. "We're sort of putting Band-Aids on everything."