Biologist Louis Burnett had to move his lab students to a conference room across the parking lot at Fort Johnson. His federal lab, animals and cell cultures are under lock and key.
Burnett's dilemma is a case example of the ripple effect of the ongoing federal shutdown. As the shutdown enters its third day, the clock keeps ticking insistently for any number of people who don't work for the federal government but find themselves on the outs because of the political standoff.
Burnett is a research professor at the College of Charleston. But like others in a cadre of college and state researchers, he collaborates on studies, shares office space and makes use of the equipment at the Hollings Marine Lab and the Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research.
The federal labs share the Fort Johnson campus on James Island with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the Medical University of South Carolina.
Currently, at least 20 college graduate students are hamstrung trying to complete experiments and might face another semester of tuition to get their degrees.
“Now they can't get to their research. For one or two weeks it's probably OK. But three weeks it's going to be really serious,” Burnett said.
Meanwhile the state and federal collaborative work studying marine pollution, diseases and genetics for fish stocks is essentially suspended or carried on piecemeal and makeshift. It's not showy stuff. It's the hammer-and-nail work that protects the health and the life of Lowcountry waters.
Normally the collaborative effort is one of those better-bang-for-the-buck operations that yields more accurate results cost effectively. Now, only one person per lab per day can enter either federal facility — to keep animals and cell cultures alive. Even maintenance suffers on complex, sensitive equipment such as the Hollings lab's nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.
“Long term, it's certainly a major problem,” said David Whitaker, DNR marine resources assistant deputy director.
The ripple is unsettling life and the economy across the Lowcountry.
Patricia Merriam, of Goose Creek, isn't a federal employee; she's married to a Navy retiree. But she found out while making her weekly grocery run Wednesday that the commissaries at the Charleston Air Base and Naval Weapons Station were ordered closed until further notice. She estimates that using the Weapons Station commissary saved her at least $34 a week on items such as eggs, milk, vegetables and pet food.
That's an immediate pocketbook issues for thousands of active-duty military. It's also trouble for what the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce estimates is 18,000 retired military personnel and their families in the area. The commissaries are primarily where foodstuffs are purchased. The base exchange network, though, was scheduled to remain open. The exchange supplies services and other sorts of retail goods.
Merriam questioned what Congress is doing about fixing the problem and how they are not talking to each other. “They don't seem to care about what's happening to the people while they are shutting the government down,” she said.
Outdoor recreation such as shrimp baiting has been halted in the popular Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers guarding chained boat landings. The impact is being felt across outdoors businesses and even schools.
Chris Crolley, of Coastal Expeditions, cannot operate his ferry franchise to Bulls Island in the refuge. He has laid off employees, and canceled a school trip for 55 students Wednesday and another trip for Thursday.
The summer business at his outdoors company pays the bills, he said. The busy fall ferry season, “that's when we make the money it takes to feed our families through the winter. The longer this goes the harder it gets.”
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