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Budget cuts forcing some EPA library closures

By Melanie Bengtson
First Amendment Center Online intern
10.30.06

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 access.

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 information.

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 article.

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


Update
EPA halts library closures
By Courtney Holliday Move comes after members of Congress, advocacy groups criticize agency's plan to restructure library system. 06.08.07

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