State environmental inspections, CDC outbreak response and breweries hit in Day 9 of the GOP's government shutdown

Raw chicken thighs courtesy wikimedia.jpg

“We’re on the road to nowhere” – The Talking Heads

With the government shutdown now in its 9th day, the words from the Talking Heads ring true. Republican leaders keep yammering for a vote to curtail President Obama’s signature achievement—the Affordable Care Act—while the president rightly counters that he’ll make a deal when they drop their threats and conditions for a budget that reopens the government. And the two sides are as far apart today, just as they were on Day One, as the vast span of the now-closed Grand Canyon.

But as the GOP-launched shutdown drags on, we’re seeing more of its unsavory and unwanted impacts on our health, our environment and our economy. Furloughs strain the federal Centers for Disease Control’s ability to respond to a salmonella outbreak or to inspect labs that handle dangerous viruses or bacteria. The funding that puts state environmental inspectors and permit writers on the job has dried up. And furloughs are stalling a fast-growing small business industry:  America’s craft brewers. And the bureau that processes new brewery licenses and approves labels for new beers has been shuttered.

These examples, and others I’ve chronicled, make it clear the Republicans need to let the House vote on a clean budget. We need to let our government do its job so our country can get back on track.

State Inspectors Gone, Environmental Permits Unavailable

Despite the fanciful cartoon of Environmental Protection Agency ‘s black helicopters needlessly harassing businesspeople, EPA actually does few inspections, enforcement, or permit writing for environmental programs.  The states do the bulk of that work, supported by federal funding.

One-third of EPA’s budget goes directly to the states for operating state programs, as well as for funding the building and repair of sewers and drinking water systems. But the shutdown has dried up that funding. In Wyoming, 126 state environmental personnel, about half the state’s staff, have been furloughed because this funding didn’t continue after October 1.  North Carolina and Arkansas furloughed some of their environmental state employees. Other states surely are in the same predicament.  I wonder how many Representatives knew that state employees were also going to be unemployed immediately because of Capitol Hill shenanigans.

The shutdown is hampering states’ ability to do their jobs in other ways. Instead of running 50 individual state computer programs to handle water permits, many states keep their water permit data on a centralized EPA computer system. But now that federal database is down. States cannot run reports, cannot enter new data, and have no access to existing data in the system.  About 30 states are “direct users” of this system. It’s affecting the issuance of Clean Water Act permits slowing down construction projects. In one state, 63 permits had been affected by Monday of this week. 

Tainted chickens come home to roost

As the government shutdown hit the one-week mark on Monday, the government issued an alert that there is a major salmonella outbreak, traced to tainted chicken from three California packing plants, that has already struck nearly 300 people in 18 states.  Uh-oh.  At the beginning of the shutdown, it was just these kinds of multi-state outbreaks that, we were told, wouldn’t be covered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  While the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has remained largely on the job and issued the alert, heavy furloughs have hit CDC, which operates the national foodborne detection services and has unique lab resources. A link to the CDC in the FSIS alert notes ominously, “the information on this website may not be up to date.”

News of the outbreak comes just days after a Wall Street Journal reported on deep shutdown cutbacks at CDC’s labs and offices. “Microbes/other threats didn’t shut down. We are less safe,” the CDC’s director Dr. Tom Frieden tweeted. One staffer, rather than the usual six, is tracking foodborne illnesses; and only seven of the regular 18 epidemiologists are on the beat to respond to such illnesses. In the meantime, the CDC won’t be able to conduct its regular inspections of labs that authorized to handle the most lethal pathogens, like Marburg virus.

99 Bottles of Beer On The Wall, And Staying There

Beer bottle courtesy

This time of year, America’s craft brewing industry should be brimming with new pumpkin ales, fall seasonals and early holiday beers. But the shutdown is having a Prohibition-like impact on new beers and breweries.

That’s because the federal Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau, responsible for licensing new breweries, labels and beer formulas, isn’t operating at a half-glass-full status; it’s virtually empty. This means that no new breweries can open and existing breweries cannot bring new beers, such as those featuring new spices or fruit, onto the market. The timing is poor for an industry experiencing truly frothy growth. Brewers Association Membership Coordinator Erin Glass reported that as of May 31 this year there were 2,514 U.S. breweries, a spike upwards of 422 from May 31, 2012. Job growth, in an industry that has added 5,000 new jobs per year, is on ice.

Lake Effect Brewing Company, a craft brewer in Chicago, expressed the views of many in their industry about the shutdown’s consequences in this note on Facebook: “Get your (*&!%) together federal government! we got lots of new beers that need label approval!!”

Breweries are big advocates for clean water, an important factor in brewing.  And earlier this year, a group of 20 craft brewers from around the country announced a campaign, “Brewers for Clean Water,” along with NRDC, to push forward on long-delayed safeguards that could improve water quality, the key ingredient in beer.

photo credits: wikipedia and wikimedia