Nov. 1, 2006 – Critics of the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s latest downsizing of scientific library materials say it threatens to strip access to information from the very people who help develop environmental policies.
The Agency this month closed the library that its own scientists use to research and evaluate new and existing chemicals before approving them for public use.
With no public announcement, the EPA shuttered the Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances Chemical Library as part of its 2006 plan to "modernize and improve" its network of 26 libraries by closing some physical spaces and digitizing library holdings. The plan, released in August, was spurred by the Bush administrationâ€™s proposed cuts to EPA library funding.
The Agency has already closed or is planning to close three regional libraries in Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City. The EPAâ€™s library headquarters was also closed to "walk-in patrons and visitors" this month, and is now being used as a repository for library collections.
The EPA maintains that "unique" holdings of the Chemical Library will be made available on-line, while "sensitive" data will be available to EPA scientists through "internal mechanisms." Critics worry, however, that access to information will be difficult and elusive, and could severely threaten scientistsâ€™ ability to thoroughly research the effects of chemicals before approving them.
Critics worry that access to information will be difficult and elusive, and could severely threaten scientistsâ€™ ability to thoroughly research the effects of chemicals before approving them.
Internal e-mails reviewed by The NewStandard also suggest that much of the Chemical Libraryâ€™s collection was being dispersed to other libraries haphazardly, and the closure of the library was done hastily. The environmental watchdog organization Public Employees for Environmental Protection (PEER) received the e-mails from EPA staffers.
TNS is providing anonymity to the authors of the emails in order to protect the employees involved, who fear retribution.
The e-mails indicate that EPA library personnel were confused and upset by the hasty library closure. In one message, dated October 20, an EPA staffer urged other Agency libraries to claim materials by the next day.
In reference to a list of chemical journals another EPA library employee wrote, "â€¦I hope we get more than 2 days alsoâ€¦. [W]e have dropped everything and have reviewed the [Chemical Library] holdings this past week so that we can get what we really need before it is discarded."
A second email from another EPA library staff person complained about the "scattered disbursement, short time frame and minimal communications coming from on high."
The dispersal of library holdings to other facilities is outlined in the EPAâ€™s 2007 library plan. However, the Agency itself warned: "Although it may be tempting to dispose of library materials quickly, the loss of important and unique materials could have serious future consequences if the Agency cannot document scientific findings or enforcement actions."
â€œIn general, the whole idea that the richest country in the world canâ€™t afford libraries for its environmental staff is pretty crazy.â€
The EPA refused to comment to TNS on why the Chemical Library holdings were being dispersed, or why the dispersal was happening so quickly.
But Jessica Emond, a spokesperson for EPA, defended the library closure program.
"Staff walk-ins to the libraries have declined dramatically over recent years as the rise in
electronic communications has made it easier and quicker to obtain information," she told TNS. "In response, EPA has been examining ways to streamline the system while continuing to ensure that staff has access to library services needed to carry out the agency's mission."
Bill Hirzy, a senior scientist with the EPA for 25 years and vice president of the National Treasury Employees Union, the union which represents EPA employees, told TNS that the union believes the library closure has dangerous implications for public health.
Hirzy said when evaluating a chemical, scientists must look at such things as "toxicity to humans and other mammals. Will it be an ozone-depletor? Will it travel through groundwater?" He continued, "And where this information resides is, guess where? In the library."
One arm of the EPA that uses the library, the Office of Pollution, Prevention and Toxics, regulates testing of new and existing chemicals.
Hirzy also said he is not convinced that the EPA will quickly and efficiently transfer all of the libraryâ€™s hardcopy information into electronic databases.
He said scientists will have to "hope that [they] can track the information down through some system of computers instead of being able to take the elevator down to the third floor and find the information right there in front of you."
â€œIf you canâ€™t navigate your way through the electronic maze, too bad, youâ€™re on your own.â€
The EPAâ€™s library plan warned that "some disruption to access" to library collections may occur "until funding for dispersion is available."
"To preserve accessibility, a minimal level of staffing will be necessary to retrieve, reshelve and mail items," the plan said.
Because it is unclear whether scientists will have the same access to information previously afforded at the Chemical Library, Hirzy warned that the general public could be affected if scientists are making decisions about chemicals with less information at their disposal.
The EPA would not comment to TNS on how soon all of the Chemical Libraryâ€™s holdings would be digitized, and if funding was available to do that work. However, the library plan says, "The digitization process is proceeding smoothly and has the funding necessary to continue."
Hirzy said having an online library does not ensure the public will continue to have access to EPA information.
"The other wrinkle is that the general public right now, when they go into the library, there are librarians that can guide them through the search process," he said. "If you canâ€™t navigate your way through the electronic maze, too bad, youâ€™re on your own."
In the EPAâ€™s library plan, the Agency said it will create a plan to manage public inquiries and provide answers to frequently asked questions on the Agencyâ€™s website. Additionally, the EPA says it will develop an "expert" list to facilitate the referral of more detailed questions.
Hirzy continued, "In general, the whole idea that the richest country in the world canâ€™t afford libraries for its environmental staff is pretty crazy."