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Tri-Cities gets lucky in shutdown, but be careful what you eat

What happens when the government shuts down?

The world won't end if Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill. That's the truth about a government "shutdown": the government doesn't shut down.
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The world won't end if Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill. That's the truth about a government "shutdown": the government doesn't shut down.

The partial government shutdown is taking its own toll in the Tri-Cities.

While more than 9,000 people involved in cleaning up the Hanford nuclear reservation are still getting paid, other federal employees are not so fortunate.

And many are still on the job — inspecting food, screening travelers and controlling planes at the Tri-Cities Airport, protecting government buildings and more. But they will be without a paycheck this week.

Saturday marks the 22nd day of the partial shutdown, which would be a new record for the U.S. For thousands of federal workers, Friday was supposed to be payday.

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Tyson Foods confirmed its Wallula beef plant is operating normally with inspectors on site. Tri-City Herald file

Cook everything

Mid-Columbia food processors continue to operate, with state and some federal inspectors on hand. But there’s a catch.

Many federal inspectors are working without pay.

The 1906 federal Meat Inspection Act mandates that inspectors be present in slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.

Those FDA inspectors are on the job, for now.

A spokesman for Tyson Foods confirmed its Wallula beef plant is operating normally.

The lack of pay for inspectors alarms Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who represents plaintiffs in food poisoning cases.

“These inspectors are all super professional. They the fact they’re not getting paid and they have to worry about other things than their job, it’s just common sense that it’s not a good thing,” he said.

With the growing season getting started in some spots, the timing is cause for concern as well.

Along the central California coast, it will soon be time to plant romaine lettuce. Romaine was subject to a nationwide recall following a 2018 E. coli outbreak that sickened 62 people in 16 states and the District of Columbia.

Without enough inspectors to monitor soil and water conditions, Marler is worried the problems that plagued the industry last year could reassert themselves.

“It’s bad for consumers. It’s bad for business. The only person who benefits from it is me,” he said, referring to his litigation practice.

Marler advises consumers to rethink their diets until the shutdown ends and inspections return to normal.

“Eat like you did in the 1960s,” he said. “Just cook everything. That’s the only way to assure food safety.”

Foggy TriCities Airport
TSA agents and FAA control tower workers are reporting to work as normal at the Tri-Cities Airport. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Tri-Cities Airport

Passengers are proceeding normally through security, said Don Faley, airport deputy director.

Faley said TSA agents are reporting to work as normal despite national reports that unpaid workers have been calling in sick at higher rates.

The FAA control tower is operating normally as well with unpaid controllers. Faley said the airport advises passengers to follow their normal routine of arriving one to two hours before their flights.

FAA safety inspectors – who haven’t worked in weeks due to the government shutdown – picket Miami Airport. They say safety risks for travelers increase every day they’re off. On Friday, a resources fair will be held at Sea-Tac for affected workers.

Federal court

The federal court district that includes the Tri-Cities announced it had the money to operate one more week until Jan. 18.

But federal attorneys seem to be feeling the stress of the partial government shutdown. At least some were working without pay.

The Eastern Washington District of the Department of Justice said in a press release that it continues to prosecute criminal cases, but that some activities have been curtailed.

On Thursday one attorney told Judge Sal Mendoza Jr. in the Richland federal courthouse that there was uncertainty in resolving a case because of the partial shutdown.

“The court is taking the position we have a constitutional duty to do our jobs and will continue to do so,” Mendoza said, and refused to postpone any deadlines.

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The Federal Building at 825 Jadwin Ave. in Richland remains open during the partial federal government shutdown. Sarah Gordon Tri-City Herald

The judge said the court will “ensure this defendant has a right to trial regardless of what the government decides to do with its funding, and we will hold true to that.”

In another case filed in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington, Justice Department attorneys based in Washington, D.C., asked Judge Stanley Bastian to put a Hanford case on hold.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the state of Washington in December, asking the court to overturn a new state law that helps ill Hanford workers win worker compensation claims decided by the state Department of Labor and Industries.

The judge has not responded.

The U.S. District Court posted on its website that if the shutdown continues past Jan. 18 and runs out of money, the court would then have to operate under terms of the Anti-Deficiency Act. The act allows Constitutionally required work of the court to continue.

National Weather Service

The staff at the National Weather Service in Pendleton, which provides the forecasts for the Tri-Cities and other areas in eastern Washington and Oregon, remains at work.

Staff are not being paid, but still are required to provide forecasts and other information, including weather warnings, to protect people and their property.

The National Weather Service posted on its website that tours and other public activities have been postponed.

Hanford

By far the largest federal presence in the Tri-Cities is the more than 9,000 people working on environmental cleanup at Hanford, either directly for the Department of Energy or its contractors.

In a government shutdown in 2013, Congress reached an agreement to end a 16-day shutdown just as preparations were being made to send home up to 85 percent of about 8,500 contractor workers plus subcontractors.

Currently, work is continuing mostly as usual because the Department of Energy, which is responsible for Hanford and also Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, is one of the federal agencies that had spending approved before the start of the fiscal year in October.

However, Hanford operations depend on other federal agencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency is a Hanford regulator and one of the three agencies in the Tri-Party Agreement, which sets legally binding requirements and deadlines for Hanford environmental cleanup.

Its Hanford office has been closed due to the government shutdown.

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More than 9,000 people work on environmental cleanup at Hanford, either directly for the Department of Energy or its contractors.

Officials at Hanford Advisory Board committee meetings this week said there had not been significant impacts yet from EPA officials being out, although it meant EPA was not working on their long-term Hanford oversight projects.

Issues mostly have been related to administration and paperwork, John Price, the Washington state Department of Ecology’s Tri-Party Agreement section manager, said on Friday. Ecology is also one of the three Tri-Parties.

If the partial shutdown drags on, however, it could interfere with some proposed changes to the Tri-Party Agreement that both regulators and DOE must sign off on.

The Hanford Advisory Board, a volunteer board that offers advice to DOE and its regulators, also is watching the shutdown closely.

It canceled its last full board meeting in December because it fell on the national day of mourning declared by President Trump in honor of former President George H.W. Bush.

Now it may have to cancel or postpone its Feb. 13-14 full board meeting.

The board is required to have notices of its meetings published in the Federal Register 30 days in advance. But the federal funding lapse is limiting the work being done by Federal Register staff.

In addition, DOE is under a 30-day travel ban, which affects the board. Many volunteers from around Washington and Oregon depend on reimbursement of their travel expenses to attend board meetings.

Hanford DOE workers are also affected by the travel ban, but can request an exemption.

The Government Services Agency, which owns and maintains the Federal Building in Richland used by employees of Hanford contractors, is impacted by the shutdown.

However, the Federal Building remains open, with maintenance, janitorial services and utilities continuing.

Still, the agency said in a nationwide announcement on its website that building maintenance and related service might be reduced from regular service levels at some buildings.

The Federal Protective Service continues to provide security, according to the agency.

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Battelle Memorial Institute holds the Department of Energy contract to manage Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland. Tri-City Herald file

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

The DOE national lab in Richland with about 4,400 employees remains minimally affected, said spokesman Greg Koller.

Although it depends on agencies in addition to DOE to fund its research, most of that work is not affected.

“In a very few cases, staff have been affected by a change in direction from non-DOE sponsors,” he said. “In those cases, we are working to redeploy staff to other projects.”

All staff have been advised to double check any travel plans to verify that conferences or federal employees they plan to meet with are not affected by the partial federal shutdown.

Staff also have been advised that they should plan for the possibility of longer waits or delays at airports as the Transportation Safety Administration is affected by the partial shutdown at some airports elsewhere in the nation.

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Two people walk on a trail past a gate with a government shutdown sign at McNary National Wildlife Refuge near Burbank. Noelle Haro-Gome Tri-City Herald

National wildlife refuges

The refuges in the Mid-Columbia River National Wildlife Refuge Complex with headquarters in Burbank remain open, but fee hunting areas are closed for the duration of the shutdown.

The closure also includes the office on Maple Street in Burbank, which sells National Park Passes, including the lifetime pass for seniors.

The complex includes the McNary National Wildlife Refuge south of Pasco near Burbank and the Hanford Reach National Monument.

The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was partially restaffing 38 wildlife refuges to make sure hunters had access.

However, the refuges of the Mid-Columbia River complex were not among those where some staff are returning to work.

Unemployment pay

About 2,000 federal workers have applied for unemployment benefits in Washington, according to Employment Security Department figures released Friday by Gov. Jay Inslee.

About 13,000 of Washington’s 74,400 federal employees are affected by the shutdown, according to the state. However, those working without pay are not eligible for unemployment benefits. Inslee said the state is investigating its options.

It’s not clear how many claims are from the Tri-City area.

For furloughed workers, any unemployment compensation is essentially a loan. The law requires them to repay the money if or when they receive back pay.

Aid to farmers

Mid-Columbia farmers who qualify for U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market Facilitation Program payments to compensate for losses because of the 2018 trade disputes with China may have to wait for payments.

The USDA has paid $1.4 billion to commodity producers to date, chiefly to Midwestern soybean and corn growers.

This week, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue extended the Jan. 15 deadline to apply for the second round of payments to compensate for the lapse in federal funding. Applications that were certified prior to the shutdown will be paid.

In related news, the USDA has guaranteed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments for the poor through February.

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