EPA Library Closings Limit Researchers’ Access to Information

Published Jul 15, 2006

Update: After a public outcry from UCS activists, EPA unions, Congress, and others, EPA stopped and began to reassess its library plan. Read more about the fight to reopen the libraries.

In summer 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved swiftly to implement a plan to close large parts of its network of 27 libraries, potentially putting decades worth of valuable information beyond the reach of government scientists and independent researchers.¹Far from fighting a presidential budget request that included an 80 percent cut to its library funding, the EPA began shuttering its research libraries weeks earlier than the October 1 beginning of its fiscal year, and even before the budget cuts had been authorized by Congress. One consequence of these closings is that EPA employees will find it more difficult to do their job of protecting the environment and public health.

In February 2006, under the guise of cutting costs, the Bush Administration proposed cutting $2 million out of the $2.5 million library services budget for fiscal year 2007. Such a drastic cut would ensure the closing of most of the library network, but would hardly register as a cost savings against the $8 billion EPA budget. Furthermore, the existence of a dedicated library system has been shown to actually save money. A 2004 internal EPA report found that the library network saved over 214,000 hours a year in staff time, amounting to cost-savings of $7.5 million – considerably more than the savings gained from cutting the program.²

Officials claim the closings are part of a modernization plan, and that all library materials will eventually be available online.  However, no comprehensive assessment of information needs has been undertaken—making it likely that some unique information will be lost—and no funding exists to carry out the time-consuming and expensive process of making documents available electronically. One EPA scientist estimated 40-50,000 documents in the EPA libraries are only available in hard copy.³ These documents include unofficial but widely used reports produced by outside contractors and most documents produced prior to 1990. The immediate result of the library closings is that the resources and materials are already unavailable and the promised electronic access could be years away.

Despite the increasing availability of information from the internet, the EPA libraries are still used extensively. For example, librarians fielded more than 140,000 database and reference questions from EPA staff and the public in 2003 alone.4  

The closings have drawn criticism from lawmakers and scientists alike. A June 2006 letter of protest from the heads of 16 local unions representing about 10,000 EPA scientists, engineers, environmental protection specialists and support staff, asked Congress to stop the destruction of the library network.5 A letter from Representatives Bart Gordon (D-TN), Henry Waxman (D-CA) and John Dingell (D-MI) has prompted an investigation of the library system by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.6 And members of both the House and Senate have called upon EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson to cease and desist with the closures until the investigation is complete and Congress has authorized action.7

An internal memo from EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance summarized the worries of many EPA employees, stating "[we are] seriously concerned that these documents may be distributed without adequate documentation and cataloging and may become virtually lost within the system." The memo also warned that the office's effort to support "criminal litigation and the development of regulations will be compromised," and called for the continued access of EPA employees to "information that is critical for them to do their jobs and fulfill the Agency mission and protect the American public."8 

1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "EPA FY 2007 Library Plan: National Framework for the Headquarters and Regional Libraries," Office of Environmental Information, August 15, 2006, accessed December 4, 2006.
2. The EPA National Library Network, "Business Case for Information Services: EPA's Regional Libraries and Centers, Environmental Protection Agency," Office of Environmental Information report, January 2004, accessed December 4, 2006.
3. Anonymous EPA Employee, "EPA Employee Responds to Official Spin on Library Closures," YubaNet.com, August 29, 2006, accessed December 4, 2006.
4. The EPA National Library Network, 6. 
5. EPA Scientists' June 29, 2006 Letter of Protest, accessed from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility website, December 4, 2006.
6. Letter to Comptroller General David M. Walker from 3 U.S. Representatives, September 19, 2006.
7. Letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson from 4 U.S. Representatives, November 30, 2006. Letter from 18 U.S. Senators, November 3, 2006.
8. Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA). "OECA Position Paper on the 2007 EPA Library Plan," accessed from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility website, December 4, 2006.