Hostile Environment for Documents

Why is the EPA's library being decimated?

Glenn McGee
Feb 28, 2007

Like most US agencies charged with the oversight of the public's health, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relies on accumulated wisdom as it navigates new and varied problems. So imagine the information it stores at 27 libraries: books, journals, reports, and documents numbering in the millions. According to agency statistics, in 2005 EPA library staff fielded more than 134,000 database and reference questions and distributed tens of thousands of documents to researchers and the public. The library is the institutional memory of the EPA.

Like most libraries, EPA libraries have not scanned most holdings into electronic format. So librarians and location- or specialty-specific repositories are important to the EPA and those who consume its information. You'd think that the agency responsible for, say, all clinical information on the effects of pesticides would do anything to keep those systems of information fully operational and to modernize. But in fact, the greatest environmental disaster of this decade may be the amnesia that the White House and EPA seem hell-bent on causing.

In February of 2006, the White House proposed cutting $2 million of the $2.5 million budget for EPA libraries. It is a huge cut to the libraries, but a blip against the $8 billion EPA budget. Incredibly, EPA did not wait for the budget to be approved, but instead began decimating libraries and trashing materials including at three regional libraries, a library for research on the effects and properties of chemicals, and its headquarters.

Senators Barbara Boxer, (D, Calif.) and Frank Lautenberg, (D, NJ) and associations representing thousands of EPA scientists, engineers and other staff cried foul, pointing to the fact that EPA shutdowns depleted reference materials that might be indispensable in an emergency. In the EPA's library, for example, are at least 50,000 one-of-a-kind primary source documents. The EPA's own Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA), said last year that the agency has failed to adequately maintain critical information and accessibility. OECA "fears that dispersal of [the libraries' information important to specific regions... and unique data on industrial processes and analytical methods] without proper tracking and access could undercut rulemaking and the ability to substantiate and support findings, determinations and guidance."

Representatives Henry Waxman, (D, Calif.), Bart Gordon, (D, Tenn.), and John Dingell, (D, Mich.), called on EPA Administrator Steve Johnson to stop the process and the General Accounting Office to investigate. EPA says it has stopped. But it has failed to make available a good plan for access to stored materials. They just disappear. How? I find an image from the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark helpful: scientist Indiana Jones is told by bureaucrats that the ark is being examined by "top people" and will be available later. The camera fades to the ark fading into a massive warehouse. EPA ought not to become a shell, or shill, manipulating its identity or even recreating itself as every administration relegates to "top people" the documents that are necessary to ensure public health.

Some have alleged that the EPA is shredding not just journals and documents, but files that may specifically damage the agency. No one has provided any proof of that yet, but if it turns out to be true, it may deserve a column of its own. My point is more mundane, but perhaps just as important. We just have to look to history to see the effect of destroyed libraries. Take the loss of the Library of Alexandria, founded in the 3rd century BC, to fires likely set by scoundrel politicians.

The Alexandria loss became iconic when Carl Sagan created a digital recreation of the library for the famed television program Cosmos, and strolled through it to illustrate how political attacks on science can have a vast, pernicious effect on scientific progress. Data about pesticides isn't on papyrus scrolls, but the destruction of EPA's library system might have as much effect on our ability to monitor the environment as the burning of the 500,000 scrolls in Egypt.

The EPA, in the midst of an inspection of its clinical trials by a committee that includes ethicists, can ill-afford to lose its memory. And it owes all of those human subjects and the public access to relevant records. It is a hostile environment. Congress can spare $2 million to repair it.


Glenn McGee is the director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College, where he holds the John A. Balint Endowed Chair in Medical Ethics.gmcgee@the-scientist.com