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Shutdown Endangers All of Us

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What started in Washington, D.C. as a quixotic right-wing cause against Obamacare, now endangers all of us. The "voice of conscience", whether on the left or right has had a treasured place in the American Congress, from Senator Rand Paul's recent filibuster on the use of drones, to Minnesota Congressman John T. Bernard's lone vote against the Embargo Act at the start of the Spanish Civil War. But while these acts were designed to make a point, they were not designed to become the point. The oratorical nihilism of conservative House Republicans is now poised to bring our country to the brink of financial collapse. They've succeeded in shutting the government down, putting politics in front of the public good and even common sense.

The government shutdown is going to have a huge impact on the safety of our workplaces and the communities around them. Over 90 percent of staff at the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board -- which investigates chemical accidents at industrial facilities -- will be unable to do their job. Too many of our country's essential operations normally staffed by hundreds, are down to as many people as you can count on your fingers. Nearly 94 percent of the staff at the Environmental Protection Agency aren't working which means inspections of dangerous environmental and health hazards and remediation of brownfields won't be continuing. And officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are shutting down operations across the country.

This is the kind of recklessness that's going to make it that much harder to prevent chemical spills that endanger our workers and families. We don't have to look far to see what happens when major chemical facilities go without the scrutiny of regular safety reviews. The plant involved in the recent West, Texas tragedy had been inspected just once by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in its 51 years of existence. The people charged with protecting us were already spread too thin, but with the shutdown, it's beyond worse.

West wasn't an isolated incident. According to The New York Times, "last year, 1,270 people died in more than 30,000 chemical spills and accidents." Now, just months after the West accident -- where 15 workers and first responders were killed and 160 people were injured by a chemical explosion -- the government shutdown is stopping the meaningful progress that's been made to keep Americans safe. Conservative Republicans may not care that their action will make workers and communities less safe from chemical disasters, but the one in three Americans who live near one of hundreds of chemical facilities that store and use highly toxic chemicals do care. Tea Party favorite, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, said of the shutdown, "It's exactly what we wanted, and we got it." It's hard to contemplate an elected official who wants to leave Americans unguarded and unsafe.

You see, there was progress being made in protecting our families from toxic chemical spills and explosions. President Obama recently signed an Executive Order that will help improve chemical facility security and safety, help coordinate chemical security between government agencies, improve disaster response procedures, and ensure first responders know the dangers they face when they enter a facility to fight a fire or evacuate workers in the event of an explosion. But, it won't be effective if the people charged with implementing and enforcing are locked out of their jobs safeguarding all of us because a few Tea Party Republicans have decided to move beyond "making a point" to destroying our institutions of government.

Let's face it, there are already enough hurdles to making our communities safe and healthy and keeping chemical facilities secure. Some companies in the chemical industry are fighting tooth and nail against efforts to use safer chemicals. They've slowed any real action in Congress, and now they're working in states to prevent lawmakers from protecting their citizens from toxic chemicals.

No one begrudges any American the right to express their principles whether in speech or in casting their vote. But where the Tea Party goes wrong is in believing that the white hot passion of their convictions can justify destroying the institutions we rely on.