Friday, December 29, 2006

Update on EPA Library Closures

EPA's decision to close its regional libraries has finally begun to get the critical attention it deserves. Stories, op-ed pieces and editorials in the Boston Globe, New York Times, LA Times, Seattle Post Intelligencer, and the Florida Sun Sentinel to name a few have decried this decision as bad for the environment and bad for responsible government. (Full disclosure: I wrote two of those pieces with Professor Joel Mintz of Nova Southeastern Law School.) Environmental groups, library groups, and EPAs professional staff have consistently weighed in against the closures.

After the election, 4 key Democrats--the incoming chairs of key House committees for the 110th Congress--wrote to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson urging him to halt the library closures. As minority leaders these same Representatives had asked GAO to investigate the library closure decision. Now, from a position of significantly greater leverage, Ranking Members Reps. Bart Gordon (D-TN),John Dingell (D-MI), Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) and James Oberstar (D-MN) expressed their serious concerns over the current implementation of "library reorganization" plans and the "destruction or disposition" of library holdings. They demanded that EPA wait for the GAO investigation to conclude before taking any further actions, and there might even be the possibility of congressional hearings. Apparently, thirteen senators sent a similar letter.

The Bush Administration has apparently began to feel the pressure. On December 11, 2006, EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock spoke for the first time about the library closures and defended the closures as a budgetary matter and again asserted that documents would be available online. However, virtually none of the EPA records that exist prior to 1990 have been digitized and there are no funds allocated for that process in EPA's 2007 budget. Peacock did indicate that EPA had "rescheduled the recycling" (read destruction) of documents in light of the congressional request. Much of the national press picked up the story at this point.

Nonetheless, as of now, E.P.A has closed its libraries in Dallas, Chicago and Kansas City. The Boston, New York, San Francisco and Seattle libraries are operating with reduced hours and public access. The central library in Washington, D.C., while nominally still open to E.P.A staff, has been closed to the public.

Apparently in an attempt to make the changes irreversable, an unknown number of documents have already been destroyed and the collections of the closed libraries dispersed. In one of the more bizarre turns, all the library furniture and fixtures from the Chicago library, said to be worth $80,000 were sold at auction for $350. The unseemly haste with which these critical libraries have been dismantled is startling.

Now would be a good time to call your Senators and Representatives!! Unless the new Congress pushes hard, it seems clear that new closures will be coming from an administration that consistently sought to reduce public access to information on all fronts.

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