By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006
Proposed budget cuts could cripple a nationwide system of Environmental Protection Agency libraries that government researchers and others depend on for hard-to-find technical information, library advocates say.
The $2 million cut sought by the White House would reduce the 35-year-old EPA Library Network's budget by 80 percent and force many of its 10 regional libraries to close, according to the advocates and internal agency documents.
That, in turn, would dramatically reduce access to certain EPA reports, guidance and technical documents that are used by the agency's scientific and enforcement staff as well as private businesses and citizens, they say.
"They are moving ahead very quickly on very substantive cuts to their library program," said Patrice McDermott, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations. "They really don't have a good plan for continuing to provide access for the public, and even their own researchers and scientists, to the information."
EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said it was "premature" to talk of mass closings among the regional libraries, although the one in Chicago already is shutting down. Wood said that 15 other EPA libraries, many of them attached to federal laboratories, will not be affected by the budget cuts.
She said the agency plans to save money and operate more efficiently by making EPA materials in the regional libraries available electronically. Many documents that exist only on paper will continue to be available through interlibrary loans, Wood said.
"EPA's commitment remains unchanged in providing EPA's staff with access to environmental information to support sound environmental decisions. [The agency] encourages the public to use our information resources and will continue to provide public access," Wood said.
McDermott said digitizing the EPA library holdings is "a great idea" -- but it remains little more than that. "You can't just stop providing access to your print on the chance that some day five, six, seven years down the road you are going to have it digital," she said.
The libraries provide documentation for enforcement cases and help EPA staff track new environmental technologies and the health risks associated with dangerous chemicals. They also are repositories of scientific information that is used to back up the agency's position on new regulations and environmental reports and data that are tapped by everyone from developers to airports, to state and local officials. Their collections include hard-to-find copies of documents on federal Superfund hazardous waste sites, water-quality data and the health of regional ecosystems.
Betty Lou Hicks, manager of library services for Hanson Professional Services, an engineering consulting firm in Springfield, Ill., said her company draws on documents from the libraries to conduct wetland studies, environmental assessments and geotechnical surveys. The firm's typical clients might include an airport looking to build a new runway, she said.
"It's very important for us to be able to get our hands on these documents," Hicks said, "and yet with these libraries closing down, it means that the documents aren't going to be readily available. So that means we're going to have to do a lot more searching, and that means time -- and, of course, time is money to us."
The public has a lot at stake in the future of these libraries, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit advocacy group that obtained internal EPA documents on the proposed cuts.
"We view this as another example of the Bush administration marginalizing EPA research so that the agency scientists and other specialists can't do their jobs," Ruch said. "And then in the absence of information, plans by industries and others that have environmental implications go forward."