Budget cuts forcing some EPA library closures

Monday, October 30, 2006

Responding to questions about next year’s proposed budget, the Government Accountability Office has agreed to investigate cuts that are forcing the
closure of Environmental Protection Agency libraries across the nation. Three
ranking House Democrats had requested the investigation in a letter that stated
“a shuttered library does not further open and transparent government.”

Representatives Bart Gordon of Tennessee, Henry Waxman of
California and John Dingell of Michigan, urged the GAO to examine the Bush
administration’s proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2007, which has not yet
been passed by Congress but which went into effect Oct. 1. The EPA library
system is funded through the Office of Environmental Information and was cut by
80%, leaving just $500,000 for operations.

The GAO plans to begin the investigation next month, said John B.
Stephenson,  director of natural resources and environment at the GAO.

The representatives wrote in a Sept. 19 letter to the GAO that “the estimated
savings of $2 million annually may be illusory and do not appear to be
sufficient justification for making information less accessible within the
Agency and to the public.”

The EPA released a plan last August that explained the restructuring of the
library system, which operates 26 libraries across the United States that offer
public access to thousands of EPA documents. Of the 26 libraries, 10 regional
libraries and the headquarters library in Washington, D.C., will be or have
already been affected by the budget reduction. The headquarters and three
regional libraries have already closed.

However, according to the EPA's FY 2007 Library Plan, the agency intends to make its entire collection of
documents available online. In phases depending on the date of a library’s
closing, the information it houses will be digitized and made accessible to its
scientists and the public. The first phase will be completed by early 2007,
according to the EPA’s restructuring plan. Currently, the National Environmental
Publications Information System houses roughly 15,000 documents on its Web site, nepis.epa.gov, where they are available for public

A primary duty of the libraries is to provide the agency’s staff and the
public access to EPA information regarding health risks of chemical substances,
new environmental technologies and documents to support new regulations and
litigation. The library system houses more than 350,000 reports, books,
technical journals, audiotapes and videotapes; it handles more than 134,000
research requests from EPA staff per year. The system also stores 50,000
primary-source documents that are not available anywhere else.

According to a 2004 EPA Library report, “Business Case for Information
Services,” agency librarians have saved EPA staff more than 214,566 hours of
research time valued at more than $7.5 million. The report also states that the
benefit to cost ratio of the library system is more than 6:1, which takes into
account both EPA and public requests.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the EPA and other government agencies
must make information and records available for the public, with a few
exemptions. To fulfill its legal obligation, the EPA operates reading rooms at
many of its libraries. The EPA also maintains reading rooms for Offsite
Consequence Analysis documents, Superfund dockets and documents required to be
available by the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Currently, www.epa.gov operates an FOIA Reading Room through
which the public can request documents and publications in the same way that it
could in physical reading rooms.

The American Library Association has spoken out against the budget cuts.
Calling the cuts “draconian” in a Feb. 28 letter to the chairman and ranking
member of the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies,
ALA President Michael Gorman wrote that “these proposed cuts put EPA library
collections and services at risk and will seriously harm the public’s ability to
gain access to the Agency’s valuable and unique resources.”

At the ALA’s annual conference in June, its members passed a resolution to
affirm their support of EPA libraries and encourage the restoration of the
libraries’ budget. Melanie Anderson, ALA assistant director of government
relations, said, “We worry that this is just another stop in threatening the
entire agency.”

Jeffrey Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental
Responsibility, also questioned the budget cuts. “It’s almost a form of
self-imposed lobotomy in that they’re cutting access to information for their
specialists who need the information to do their jobs,” he said.

The EPA’s 2007 Library Plan also provides for a phased approach to closing
physical libraries. The four that have locked their doors are regional libraries
in Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City, Mo., and the Headquarters Library in
Washington D.C.

By January 2007, the EPA says it plans to have digitized all of the documents
from those four libraries.

Gordon, Waxman and Dingell wrote, “It appears that EPA plans to shut
libraries first and digitize documents later. It is unclear from the budget
proposal or the plan what funds will be allocated to ensuring that paper and
microfiche documents will be digitized and made available electronically.”

The ALA’s Anderson also questioned the EPA plan. “If they would follow
through, that would be great,” she said. “We don’t believe the plan was set up
to sufficiently provide this information to their scientists.”

The reaction to the budget cuts and the EPA Library Plan from EPA employees
and the scientific community has been mostly negative, as well. Presidents of 16
local unions of the American Federation of Government Employees, which
represents at least 10,000 EPA employees, signed a letter of protest, filed on
Aug. 16, saying that the cuts and the plan will decrease the availability of

When asked about whether access to EPA information was being restricted, Jean
Fruci, a Democratic staffer for the House Committee on Science, said, “It
depends a lot on what you’re looking for. … If what you’re looking for is
online, presumably it will remain online and you will have access to it. If
we’re talking about paper documents that haven’t yet been digitized, it will
make it more difficult to access those documents.”

According to the EPA plan, documents from closed facilities will be available
to its scientists and to the public during the digitization process. A
digitization facility in Cincinnati will have the documents, which will be
inventoried, and can send copies to requesters.

Ruch said the only way to save the EPA library system would be for Congress
to intervene during budget negotiations and reinstate funds to keep the physical
libraries open. The FY 2007 budget has not been passed and will most likely be
addressed at a lame-duck session of Congress in November.

The EPA spokeswoman did not respond to questions in time for this

Melanie Bengtson is an intern at the First Amendment Center and a sophomore
studying developmental politics at Belmont University.