Environmental Accountability Falls with EPA Budget

In a move seen as poorly-guised attempt to restrict access to information, the EPA is quietly closing down its libraries.

| Fri Sep. 8, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

The Bush administration has persistently chipped away at environmental legislation and enforcement for the last six years, leaving both the system and the environment distressed and damaged. President Bush’s proposed 2007 budget continues this trend, requiring the closure of the majority of the Environmental Protection Agency’s research libraries and sending nearly 100,000 original documents into warehouse storage. Although Congress has yet to pass the budget, the EPA has already started shutting down libraries, with regional branches in Chicago, Dallas, and Kansas City preparing to close their doors for good by September 30. These measures have prompted an outcry from EPA scientists and researchers who point out the obvious: without the valuable resources the libraries provide, they will be severely restricted in their mission to protect and enforce environmental law.

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The libraries are an essential part of the EPA’s regulation, enforcement, and prosecution process, making available to scientists a plethora of original documents, studies, and technical information. “Cutting $2 million in library services in an EPA budget totaling nearly $8 billion is the epitome of a penny wise-pound foolish economy,” said Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Executive Director Jeff Ruch in a statement. “From research to regulation to enforcement, EPA is an information-dependent operation which needs libraries and librarians to function properly.”

Along with the physical closure of most of the EPA’s 28 libraries, the proposed budget plan will also discontinue the Online Library Service (OLS), making the EPA’s online databases and information inaccessible to the general public, watchdog organizations, and even many of the EPA’s own employees. “They are trying to marginalize their own scientists and prevent them from reporting inconvenient findings,” Ruch told Mother Jones. Of the libraries that remain open, hours and services are expected to be gradually reduced and public access to the libraries will be terminated.

“It is important to note that there is no need to be closing these libraries right now,” said Alex Fidis, a staff attorney at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “[The EPA is] acting, number one, as if the new funding is law and, number two, as if the libraries are superfluous.” Fidis sees the library closures as one more example of the Bush administration catering to large corporations and restricting the “public’s right to know.” “If you don’t have any information about what a company is doing in terms of pollution, there is no need to take action,” he said. “It’s not as much a funding move as it is a political one.”

While EPA bureaucrats sit idly as the proverbial trees of knowledge are bulldozed, EPA employees have started speaking out. A mass protest letter signed by 10,000 EPA scientists and researchers — more than half of the agency’s workforce — accuses the library plan of being designed to “suppress information on environmental and public health-related topics.” An internal memo penned by the EPA’s enforcement branch and leaked to PEER also reflects deep concern.

The memo by the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance questions the basic tenets of the EPA’s new library plan, including the cost of digitizing all of the current paper documents and how the agency, which claims it is strapped for cash, plans on funding this enormous endeavor. The memo stresses the importance of the hundreds of journals currently available in electronic and paper form and states, “Without the substantiating scientific information available in current literature, OECA’s mission, including supporting criminal litigations and the development of regulations, will be compromised.” Regarding the dispersal of the collections from the condemned libraries, OECA states, “[We are] seriously concerned that these documents may be distributed without adequate documentation and cataloging and may become virtually lost within the system.” The memo concludes, “In order to continue to support OECA’s mission, our employees need information which is current, timely, correct, and accessible. While we are fully aware of the budget cuts impacting the Agency, OECA needs to ensure that its employees continue to have access to the information that is critical for them to do their jobs and fulfill the Agency mission and protect the American people.”

However, the EPA seems less and less concerned with fulfilling its mission. According to an analysis by PEER, referrals for new environmental criminal prosecutions fell 33 percent between 2000 and 2005. Referrals for civil prosecutions dropped 44 percent during the same period.

Meanwhile, the EPA is planning to implement the “first-ever roll-back” of the 20-year-old Toxic Release Inventory program, which reports annually on the amounts of toxic pollutants released and disposed of, said Fidis. The information collected was traditionally categorized by geographic location and was accessible to researchers and the general public alike. Under the revised plan, companies would be allowed to release 10 times the amount of toxins before being obligated to submit detailed reports; companies would be allowed to withhold data on small disposals of some of the most dangerous chemicals, such as lead and mercury; and toxic pollution would be tracked and reported only every other year.

In yet another attempt to erode environmental accountability, on September 4, the Bush administration revoked all whistleblower protections for those reporting water pollution enforcement breakdowns, manipulations of science, or cleanup failures. The EPA took this measure one step further, declaring that absolutely no environmental laws protect its employees from government or agency retaliation.

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