Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing procedures that may lock away a large portion of its library collections from access by the public, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Compounding the inaccessibility of physical collections, the public’s ability to electronically search digitized EPA holdings is problematic as well.
Over the past 18 months, EPA has closed large parts of its library network, including regional libraries serving 23 states, as well as its Headquarters Library and several technical libraries. The holdings from these shuttered facilities have been shipped to one of three “repositories” – located in Cincinnati, North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park and D.C. How the public, and even EPA’s own staff, access these growing repositories has been uncertain.
Even as Congress moves to reverse EPA’s library closures, the agency is now racing to cement new procedures restricting the ability of the public to locate or read technical documents in the agency’s possession. A new proposed policy circulated internally for comment on July 11, 2007 provides:
“Repository libraries are not required to provide public access to their collections…”
In the interim, public requests are funneled into a “frequent questions” web page that yields balky and incomplete answers to patrons’ questions.
Meanwhile, the remaining libraries are directed to provide public access but may tailor or reduce that access depending upon resource limitations:
“Available public access choices from a member library shall be based on its capacity to provide them.”
“EPA claims that its libraries are designed for the twin purposes of improving the quality of information for agency decision-making as well as raising public environmental awareness, but right now the libraries are not serving either purpose very well,” stated PEER Associate Director Carol Goldberg. “Significantly, EPA is not even bothering to consult the public who paid for these collections.”
In addition to the public, EPA’s own scientists have not been consulted either. A union grievance filed on August 16, 2006 protesting the closure of libraries as making it harder for scientists and other specialists to do their work. EPA ignored the grievance. On Monday, February 5, 2007, the American Federation of Government Employees National Council of EPA Locals filed an unfair labor practice complaint before the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). On June 26, 2007, the FLRA upheld the complaint and ordered EPA into binding arbitration with a hearing slated for August 14, 2007.
“Not only is the public locked out of the libraries, but the agency’s own scientists are having trouble getting needed information as well,” Goldberg added. “EPA claims that it plans to make more information more readily available, but judging by the results so far it has failed miserably.”