Washington, DC — Buried within the omnibus appropriations bill Congress sent this week to President Bush is a Christmas present for the beleaguered library network of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Congress ordered EPA to restore library services across the country and earmarked $3 million for that purpose, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Beginning in early 2006, without public announcement or congressional approval, EPA began dismantling its network of technical and research libraries. Altogether EPA has closed regional libraries serving 23 states and its headquarters library in Washington, D.C. It has also reduced services and hours in libraries covering another 14 states. In addition, EPA has shuttered several of its specialized, technical libraries, such as its unique library dedicated to the effects of pesticides and new chemicals.
The report language attached to the omnibus appropriations bill for the remainder of the 2008 fiscal year directs EPA to use $3 million to “restore the network of EPA libraries recently closed or consolidated by the Administration…” and to report within 90 days on its plans to “restore publicly available libraries to provide environmental information and data to each EPA region…”
“The EPA libraries are not only important to the public but are invaluable tools for the agency’s own scientists and specialists,” stated PEER Associate Director Carol Goldberg, pointing to a petition signed by the representatives for more than half of all EPA scientists protesting the closures. “While the intervention of Congress is most welcome, it comes after several closures and much disruption, leaving the remaining EPA librarians with the task of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
Prior to the closures, the budget for the EPA library network was $2.5 million. By earmarking $3 million, Congress increased the total library budget, allowing the agency to absorb the expense of collecting dispersed collections and replacing jettisoned facilities. For example, EPA closed its largest regional library in Chicago and sold all of its fixtures, valued at more than $40,000, for less than $350.
The rationale for the library closures was never clearly spelled out by the agency, which maintained that it wanted to digitize all of its holdings. Its original claim of cost savings did not bear up under scrutiny and clashed with the enormous expense of digitizing hundreds of thousands of documents. In addition, the agency did not anticipated copyright restrictions, which barred many of its holdings from being digitized.
“We have already been contacted by EPA librarians who are concerned that the same officials who destroyed the libraries will be in charge of their restoration,” added Goldberg. “We hope that Congress continues to closely oversee whether EPA fully restores the full range of library services it had provided.”
While many congressional earmarks have drawn negative attention for funding what are called “pork” projects, other earmarks act as congressional checks on executive abuses. “This is one earmark that all Americans should applaud,” Goldberg concluded.