How the 16-Day Government Shutdown Significantly Impacted Health and the Environment
After 16 long days, the government shutdown has finally come to an end. It is relief to know that hundreds of thousands public servants can return to work and that critical programs protecting our health and the environment will fully function once again. But any sense of reassurance is tempered by two simple facts: we never should have been here in the first place, and we could easily be in the same position again in January.
Political extremists pushed our nation to the brink out of sheer obstinance. House Speaker Boehner (R-OH) could have ended this days ago by simply letting the full House vote on reopening the government. Instead, he declared himself a willing hostage to the radical wing of his party. The shutdown caused real damage. It undermined critical efforts to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the places we love.
The reopening of the government and avoiding default are obviously good news. But the deal that allowed it to happen should be a signal to the environmental community to gird for the battles ahead.
The deal puts off the big fights for just a couple of months. House Republicans had a long list of anti-environmental provisions they threatened to add to the debt limit before the Affordable Care Act became their single-minded focus, and they could be part of the brinksmanship next time around. These destructive riders include approving the Keystone XL pipeline for dirty tar sands oil and requiring all coastal waters to be leased for offshore drilling. There’s also the proposal to destroy the regulatory system by requiring Congressional approval for all new environmental and other safeguards.
We could also face another battle over spending. House Republicans have voted this year for draconian cuts in environmental programs and for continuing the “sequester” that eats away at the capabilities of all agencies. GOP lawmakers are likely to push these bad ideas going into the upcoming budget talks. The federal budget should not be balanced by slashing the services the public depends upon.
People who care about health and the environment must be vigilant in the coming months. We have to let lawmakers know how much we value government programs that safeguard the air we breathe, the water we drink and the places we love.
The past 16 days revealed just how critical those efforts are and how quickly they can be undermined. Here is a brief list how the government shutdown eroded environmental protection.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Tainted Chickens Come Home to Roost
One week into the shutdown, the government issued an alert that a major salmonella outbreak that had already struck nearly 300 people in 18 states. While the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service remained largely on the job, furloughs hit the national foodborne detection services at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hard. Indeed, CDC experts had to be called back to cope with the outbreak. At the Food and Drug Administration, all inspections of imported food stopped during the shutdown, despite the fact that the U.S. imports about 80 percent of the seafood and more than 20 percent of produce Americans eat.
Cleanup of Toxic Chemicals at Superfund Sites Halted
Cleanup work on many of the 800 contaminated federal Superfund sites stopped during the shutdown. Now countless people will have to put up with toxic waste longer. People like those living in Lockport, NY, where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is finalizing a plan to relocate homeowners because of PCB, lead and other contaminants. Or Doylestown, PA, where residents are waiting for soil excavation to begin at the contaminated ChemFab property, which polluted nearby well water with TCE, a chemical linked to liver, kidney and lung cancer.
National Parks and Wildlife Refuges Put Off Limits
The shutdown prevented Americans from visiting our public lands in parks and refuges across the country. It will be easy to reopen those iconic places, but it will be nearly impossible to recover the ruined family vacations, the once-in-a-lifetime rafting trips down the Colorado River and the lost economic activity from hundreds of thousands of tourists, hunters and fishermen. Visitors typically spent $13 billion a year within 60 miles of the national parks, but gateway communities got very little business during the shutdown—which for many fell right during their peak season.
Nuclear Safety Personnel Furloughed; What Could Go Wrong?
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), had to send all but about 300 of its 3,900 workers home. It cancelled all emergency preparedness exercises and routine inspections of nuclear materials and waste licensees, among many functions. Among the ongoing projects put on hold by the shutdown: the NRC’s oversight of safety upgrades to nuclear power plants that were ordered after the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. That accident involved meltdowns and radioactive releases from multiple reactors that are similar in design to many U.S. reactors.
Shutdown Forced the EPA to Hit the Brakes
The agency charged with keeping pollution out of our air and water nearly ground to a halt when about 94 percent of its staff was furloughed. That meant permits couldn’t be issued, no one was checking to ensure environmental laws are being followed at factories and other industrial facilities, and work on safeguards came to a standstill.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Naomi Larsson
For centuries, the delicate silver dove has been a symbol of love and fidelity.
Biodiversity and Habitat Loss<p>Their near extinction is a symbol of the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/global-biodiversity-outlook-targets-extinction-summit-new-york-pledge/a-54932895" target="_blank">biodiversity crisis</a> in the UK, largely driven by habitat destruction. Britain is now one of the countries with the most <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/future-of-UK-nature#:~:text=The%20UK%20is%20one%20of,than%20half%20are%20in%20decline" target="_blank">depleted nature</a> in the world according to the World Wildlife Fund. Half its plant and animal species are in decline and more than <a href="https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/let-nature-sing-wales/#:~:text=a%20natural%20tragedy.-,Over%2040%20million%20birds%20have%20vanished%20from%20UK%20skies%20in,unaware%20of%20the%20impending%20danger" target="_blank">40 million birds</a> have vanished in just half a century.</p><p>"[Turtle doves] are the canary in the [coal] mine because there are all these other species before it and after it," said Tree. "It's an umbrella for all the other species that are heading that way."</p><p>Turtle doves migrate south through Europe to sub-Saharan Africa between July and September, ending up in dry woodland and farmland areas of countries like Mali and Senegal for winter. </p><p>Droughts in West Africa and the Sahel region are believed to have contributed to the fall in turtle dove species recorded in northern Europe, with low rainfall reducing supplies of the seeds and insects the birds rely on for energy for the long journey home.</p>
Conservation and Farming<p><a href="https://www.operationturtledove.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Operation Turtle Dove,</a> a partnership project of charities including the Essex Wildlife trust, works with landowners and farmers to actively build turtle dove habitat.</p><p>Outten works with <a href="https://www.ebws.org.uk/birdsites/blue-house-farm-ewt-north-fambridge" target="_blank">Blue House Farm</a>, a 660-acre nature reserve in the UK county of Essex, where they have replicated weedy fallow plots. </p><p>"We work on it every year to make sure it's in the condition it needs to be with plants such as clovers and black medic," Outten said. "These plants are native to the landscape and produce the seed the birds feed on." </p><p>The birds eat a wide range of seeds from various plants that would have been abundant 50 or 100 years ago, added Guy Anderson, program manager for species recovery with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). </p><p>"But it's simply true that with the gradual process of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/farming-without-pesticides-how-can-we-make-agriculture-greener/a-52216796" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">intensifying our agricultural production</a>, the availability of those seeds has dropped and dropped," said Anderson.</p><p>Part of the project includes supplementary feeding — providing sources of food in the form of seed or grain. Under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme in England, farmers can receive financial support to create a turtle dove habitat. </p><p>Though they haven't recorded an increase in doves across the sites in the four years of working on the project, Outten said they are seeing improvements in how landowners and farmers manage habitat for the birds. </p>
A Turtle Dove Haven<p>The 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in West Sussex is another project taking a different approach and one of the few places where turtle dove numbers are increasing.</p><p>Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell converted their intensively farmed land into a rewilding project almost 20 years ago. They have let the land return to nature.</p><p>Just one year after they'd finished <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/uks-most-talented-architects-are-not-human/a-35952128" target="_blank">rewilding</a> the southern part of their property, they heard turtle doves for the first time. It's now a breeding hotspot for the birds with an estimated 19 pairs. Knepp is also home to <a href="https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-projects/knepp-estate" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2% of the UK's population</a> of nightingales. </p><p>Tree is critical of supplementary feeding schemes that, in her view, are short term. She questions the chances of turtle doves getting to feed on scattered seeds before other mammals eat them first.</p>
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By Jessica Corbett
Green groups applauded Sen. Jeff Merkley on Wednesday for introducing a pioneering pair of bills that aim to "protect the long-term health and well-being of the American people and their economy from the catastrophic effects of climate chaos" by preventing banks and international financial institutions from financing fossil fuels.