EPA shuts down libraries
Agency also seeks major cuts in lab costs over the next five years
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun shutting down its national library network
by closing regional research libraries in Chicago, Dallas, and Kansas City and reducing access to collections in New York, Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco. While those actions had been expected, the EPA has also shuttered its chemical pollution and toxic substances resource library in Washington, DC, a move that caught observers off guard.
The decision to close the libraries is budget-driven. The EPA plans to cut
$2 million from the library system's $2.5 million budget for Fiscal 2007. The agency's total budget request is $7.3 billion for the fiscal year beginning October 1.
Scientists and research advocates say the library closings are short-sighted because they will jeopardize the EPA's ability to properly assess environmental issues.
"Science-based decision making is central to the mission of the EPA, and access to world-class libraries is essential for that," said Craig M. Schiffries, director of science policy at the National Council for Science and the Environment
. "Cutting what appears to be a small dollar value relative to the size of the agency will have a disproportionate effect on EPA's ability to achieve its stated mission and goals," he told The Scientist
In addition to the library closings, the EPA is seeking to markedly reduce funding for research laboratories by 2011. A June 8 internal budget planning document
directs assistant and regional administrators to develop plans to reduce laboratory physical infrastructure costs by at least 10 percent by 2009 and by another 10 percent by 2011 through a combination of staff reductions and consolidations or closings of lab/field facilities nationwide.
EPA spokesperson Suzanne Ackerman said she had no information about the budget document.
Budget cuts are a growing concern not only at EPA, but also at other federal agencies, said Robert Gropp, director of public policy at the American Institute of Biological Sciences
. "It's a concern across the board, particularly for an agency like EPA that has such a direct impact on public health and the environment," he told The Scientist
. "How will they get work done if they scale back on research and people?"
On October 20, the EPA closed its Office of Prevention, Pollution, and Toxic Substances (OPPTS) chemical library
, a specialized facility whose holdings included information on properties and toxicological effects of pesticides, genetically engineered chemicals and biotech products, as well as emergency planning and chemical risk assessments.
The library's paper-only collection was boxed up and moved to a basement cafeteria and five staffers were laid off, according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
, a nonprofit whistleblower group that has been fighting the library closings. Without the library, EPA scientists will have fewer resources to analyze industry requests to bring new chemicals to market, Ruch said. "There was no public announcement, and this library was not in EPA's original closure plan," he told The Scientist
Jessica Emond, the EPA's deputy press secretary, said the closing was part of the agency's "overall strategy for streamlining/consolidating the libraries."
"EPA is committed to ensuring unique library materials are available to the general public, the scientific community, the legal community, and other organizations," Emond said in an email to The Scientist
. "Physical holdings of the OPPTS chemical library will be made available online, and other services will be made available electronically."
As the EPA closes libraries across the country, monographs and paper documents not available electronically will be digitized, the EPA's library plan
states, with materials from libraries that have already been closed receiving first priority. Documents pending digitization will be sent to one of three national repositories, from which they can be retrieved through inter-library loan, according to the agency.
But the EPA lacks a clear plan and the budget to perform the digitization, Ruch contends. Three senior Democratic congressmen -- Bart Gordon, Henry Waxman, and John Dingell -- have asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate
the EPA's library closing plans, citing "grave concerns" that "access to many documents will be temporarily or permanently lost" due to "inadequate planning and lack of funding for digitizing documents." The GAO plans to begin the investigation later this year or early in 2007.
Links within this article:
EPA National Libraries
T. Agres, "Budget cuts imperil EPA Library System," The Scientist
, March 10, 2006
National Council for Science and the Environment
"Memorandum: FY 2008 Technical Budget Guidance"
American Institute of Biological Sciences
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
"EPA FY 2007 Library Plan: National Framework for the Headquarters and Regional Libraries"
Letter to Comptroller General David M. Walker requesting GAO investigation