EPA Casts Environmental Information to the Wind
By Lee Russ
Tuesday, April 10, 2007 at 11:24 PM
Does it make sense to dismantle a system of 26 technical libraries essential to research on the environment in order to save $1.5 million from a more-than-$8 billion budget?A lot of people don't think so, according to a piece by Jeff Ruch in Summit Daily. Ruch writes:
The closures started during the last few months of the Republican-controlled Congress when budgetary oversight was not high on the agenda. Aside from its claim of fiscal austerity, EPA said the closures were part of an effort to "modernize" its information systems by digitizing thousands of documents, page-by-page. In the meantime, whole collections are now inaccessible to both agency and outside researchers.
Last October, for example, EPA abruptly closed its Washington, D.C., headquarters library and, shortly thereafter, shuttered its world-renowned specialized library on the effects and properties of chemicals. This latter action came with no notice to the scientists who rely on those holdings to analyze new pesticides and toxic chemicals.
The sudden shutdown of the chemical library galvanized public attention because it so clearly hampered needed research without achieving any economic benefit. Then, after it had already begun closing libraries, EPA discovered that copyright limitations prevented it from digitizing materials not written by EPA staff. As a result, hundreds of reports from the agency's contractors, as well as academic and corporate researchers, will remain in hard copy, but housed in one of three "repositories."
At times, EPA's actions have taken on an Orwellian cast, as thousands of documents and whole collections were hastily dispersed to anyone willing to accept them. The three repositories of documents have grown into giant information dumps whose contents will remain un-cataloged for years to come, and in Chicago, the largest regional library, furnishings -- shelves, desks and cabinets worth some $40,000 -- were sold for $327. ...
Significantly, the effects are also being felt outside the scientific community. A briefing paper for the agency enforcement director concludes that the loss of library access will substantially impede investigations and prosecutions of polluters. Citizen groups seeking information about local Superfund sites are now finding reports unavailable -- that is if the citizens even knew of the existence of a report to ask for it.
While the EPA has temporarily halted the closure program, under pressure from the new congress, much of the damage has been done, and there are now charges that the real reason for the closings was--surprise--more political than financial. As Ruch notes:
Just more public interest governance from the folks who brought you private accounts, David Safavian, Jack Abramoff, no-bid contracts for Iraq, the loss of millions upon millions in cash in Iraq, the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, a national policy of torture when convenient, the Interior Department-for-hire caper, and the firings of the U.S. Attorneys. Among other delights.
A petition, signed by the presidents of 16 local unions representing at least 10,000 EPA scientists, engineers, environmental protection specialists and support staff, charged that the intent behind the library closures was simply "to suppress information on environmental and public-health related topics." But the effort to hamstring the EPA goes beyond libraries and includes diverting money away from research, offering early retirement to senior scientists and ultimately closing down research laboratories.
It's up there with the destroying of the Library of Alexandria. I will be blogging about it when I have a chance. Thanks for bringing it to my attention