andrew schneider investigates

March 14, 2008

Knowledge and secrets fill EPA libraries

Filed under: EPA,Government & corporate wrong-doing,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 09:59

During the years that the Seattle P-I and EPA’s front line troops were trying to track why nothing was ever done to prevent the lethal asbestos exposure of vermiculite miners in Libby, Mont. the most amazing documents came from an unexpected source. While the thousands of pages of W.R. Grace corporate documents were alarming and damning, a classic smoking gun came from the archives of historical documents in an EPA library. It was two studies that showed that EPA headquarters knew for almost 20 years that the mine on Zonolite Mountain was not only exposing miners to deadly levels of asbestos, and that the town six miles away was being covered with tons of asbestos dust, but also that communities throughout the country were being contaminated when the Libby ore was being processed there. These report showed EPA knew and did nothing.

I share this tale to to try to explain why many are anxious over Washington’s decision to close EPA’s libraries to the staff and public alike.

When EPA announced two years ago that it was closing its 26 libraries to the public and its own staff, headquarters said it was to save money. Many scientists, investigators and lawyers in the agency said the action would inhibit communication, make research more difficult and prevent everyone from tracking the agency’s actions. Congress told EPA to halt the closures and asked the Government Accountability Office to evaluate what the agency planned. Its report was submitted yesterday.

Government Accountability Office

Last month, a federal arbitrator found the EPA guilty of unfair labor practices and acting in bad faith in its national series of library closures, according to the union Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility

The Washington Post reported that EPA has 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.

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.

EPA’s primary rationale for the library network reorganization was to generate cost savings by creating a more coordinated library network and increasing the electronic delivery of services.

The report said EPA did not develop procedures to inform staff and the public on the final configuration of the library network.

EPA responded to the report and assured the GAO that things were being done properly now.


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