EPA Closure of Libraries Faulted For Curbing Access to Key Data

Rep. Bart Gordon found a
Rep. Bart Gordon found a "grim picture" of mismanagement in a report on the Environmental Protection Agency's library reorganization. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
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By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008

A plan by the Environmental Protection Agency to close several of its 26 research libraries did not fully account for the impact on government staffers and the public, who rely on the libraries for hard-to-find environmental data, congressional investigators reported yesterday.

The report by the Government Accountability Office found that the EPA effort, begun in 2006 to comply with a $2 million funding cut sought by the White House, may have hurt access to materials and services in the 37-year-old library network.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, said the report reveals a "grim picture" of mismanagement at the EPA. The panel's oversight and investigations subcommittees held a hearing on the reorganization yesterday.

The libraries provide technical information and documentation for enforcement cases and help EPA staff members 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 positions on new regulations and environmental reports and data that are tapped by people such as developers and state and local officials. The collections include hard-to-find copies of documents on federal Superfund hazardous waste sites, water-quality data and the health of regional ecosystems.

EPA officials have said that the goal of reorganizing the system was to create a more coordinated and efficient library network, in part by consolidating materials in fewer locations and digitizing many documents to make them available online.

Under the plan, EPA closed physical access to three regional office libraries in Chicago, Kansas City and Dallas, and to the headquarters library and the Chemical Library in Washington. Operating hours were reduced at libraries in Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Boston.

In early 2007, EPA officials enacted an indefinite moratorium on further changes amid congressional concerns about the reorganization. In December, Congress approved an additional $1 million for the libraries as part of a larger spending bill and directed the EPA to reopen the closed facilities. But the agency has not yet done so.

"Our vision is to be the premier model for the next generation of federal libraries by enhancing our electronic tools to complement our traditional library services," Molly A. O'Neill, the EPA assistant administrator who oversees the libraries, wrote in testimony submitted to the subcommittee.

But the GAO found that, because of copyright issues, only 51,000 of the system's more than 500,000 hard copies of books, reports, journals and maps are expected to be transferred to digital format. That means users in areas where libraries have closed must obtain materials through interlibrary loans, delaying access for as long as 20 days.

The GAO report faults the EPA for not consulting agency staff, outside experts or stakeholders before undertaking the reorganization, and failing to do a cost-benefit analysis or name a national manager to oversee the effort. Investigators noted that users of the Chemical Library -- which served EPA scientists who review industry requests to sell new chemicals -- did not learn of the facility's closure until after it occurred.

"The agency's modernization effort is characterized by poor planning, failure to communicate with its employees, the public or Congress and failure to protect unique government assets," Gordon said in a statement. "As a result, EPA library services are impaired, employees will have a harder time doing their jobs and the public has lost access to government information."

O'Neill said the EPA has taken steps to address some of the problems identified by the GAO, including better coordination with other agencies and more outreach to library users.

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