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Shutdown of EPA libraries worries scientists, advocates

WASHINGTON—Concerned about the kinds of pollutants spilling into your local rivers and streams and how they could affect your health?

As the Environmental Protection Agency closes some scientific libraries around the country, EPA scientists and other environmental advocates worry whether that kind of information could become harder to find.

They fear that the agency's plan to save money by replacing printed resources with digitized versions on the Internet could make information less—not more—accessible.

"Nobody is against modernization, but we don't see the digitization," said Francesca Grifo, a botanist and the director of scientific integrity at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group for the environment and other scientific issues. "We just see the libraries closing. We just see that public access has been cut off."

The EPA has closed three of its 10 regional libraries, branches in Kansas City, Mo., Dallas and Chicago that serve 15 states. EPA officials said that no information would be lost and that public access would be improved rather than compromised.

"EPA is committed to ensuring the agency's library materials are available to employees, the public, the scientific community, the legal community and other organizations," Linda Travers, the acting assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Environmental Information, said in an e-mail.

Travers said material from the closed libraries would be available on the agency's Web site (www.epa.gov) in January and was accessible now through interlibrary loans. She said EPA-produced documents from all 21 libraries in the agency's network that could be digitized would be accessible through the Internet within two years.

But the closing gives ammunition to scientists, open-records supporters and members of Congress who think that the Bush administration is weakening the EPA. An internal agency memo last summer spelled out plans to close laboratories, cut senior-level scientists and reduce environmental oversight.

Steve Kinser, a Superfund project engineer in Kansas City and the president of the local chapter of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents the EPA's professional employees, said the developments had made him look forward to his retirement next year even more.

"Our ability to do our job is being tested at every turn," he said. "I don't know if I can say anything more plain than that."

Unions that represent 10,000 EPA scientists, engineers and other employees have complained to Congress about the library closings. Several lawmakers have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate.

In a letter Thursday to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, four Democrats in the House of Representatives who probably will play influential roles next year on EPA issues told him to stop "destruction or disposition of all library holdings immediately."

"It now appears that EPA officials are dismantling what is likely one of our country's most comprehensive and accessible collections of environmental materials," they wrote.

The authors were the ranking Democrats on four House committees that oversee EPA issues: Reps. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, Science; John Dingell of Michigan, Energy; James Oberstar of Minnesota, Transportation; and Henry Waxman of California, Government Reform.

Regional EPA libraries in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle remain open, though some have reduced hours. EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Ackerman said she knew of no current plans to close any others.

The EPA also has shuttered its headquarters library in the nation's capital as well as a specialized library on chemicals, with little or no public notice.

"They're really acting like their hair's on fire," said Jeff Ruch, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonpartisan watchdog group. "They're quickly closing the collections, boxing them and shipping them to repositories."

Critics have questioned why the EPA is closing libraries to save $2 million when its own study in 2004 found that they saved the agency more than $7.5 million annually in staff time.

Travers said staff use of the libraries was down dramatically in recent years because of the ease and speed of the Internet.

The agency isn't digitizing everything from the closed libraries, however. Critics worry that some non-EPA materials might be destroyed, though EPA spokeswoman Jessica Emond said that only outdated documents would be discarded.

But Bill Hirzy, an EPA chemist, said the chemical library was told to "just literally throw in the Dumpster" a valuable collection of environmental journals.

"Just throw them out," he said. "We managed to put a halt to that. It's that kind of craziness that's going on down there."

The libraries contain scientific data on a variety of environmental topics, from acid rain to wetlands. Trained librarians guide EPA scientists—as well as the homeowner concerned about the construction project next door—through a trove of reports, books, scientific journals, maps, microfilm and other resources.

Among their holdings are obscure articles and publications usually unavailable on the Internet.

"We don't know which items are being tossed and which items are being saved," said Leslie Burger, the president of the American Library Association. "They have 35,000 to 50,000 unique documents available only in EPA libraries. If that information is not saved, it's gone forever."

Martha Keating, a former EPA air-quality expert who's now a children's environmental health researcher at Duke University, said the library closings and the boxing-up of their contents for storage reminded her of the ending of the film "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

"It's like that last scene where the forklift is putting the boxed-up ark in a federal warehouse," she said. "That's what I envision. It's something that's never to be seen again."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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