In an action unknown to almost all Americans except policy wonks, the Environmental Protection Agency has begun closing its network of 27 technical libraries. The process, which also includes the EPA Headquarters library in Washington, D.C., was set to begin today, October 1, the onset of the 2007 Fiscal Year. Some $2 million will be saved by the closures.
Yet with seeming eagerness, the EPA has already begun the file transfer. for is less than a third the amount an internal EPA study estimates the libraries save EPA professionals in staff time and is 80% of the libraries' annual $2.5 million budget has some people wondering if the real agenda is driven by politics rather than financial management.
Although the EPA says in part that the closure is being prompted by the trend to make records accessible online rather than in dead-tree form, virtually none of the EPA records that exist prior to 1990 have been digitized.
Currently, these older records exist either in boxes or on microfilm. The latter storage media is exceptionally expensive to digitize.
Environmental records that date back older than 1990 might sound old and obsolete. A lot can happen to a polluted river in 16 years. Yet in scientific research, sometimes old is good. If you are researching a Superfund site, or 25 years in the environmental history of a stream impacted by factory run-off- well without access to records before 1990 you're at a dead end.
Without the money to do so -and no money has been alloted for pre-digital era digitization- these records will sit in warehouses until Congressional action or a healing wind from the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue insists that the regional libraries be reopened, digitization commences at a fevered clip- or some combination of both approaches.
Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a 10,000-member advocacy group with numerous scientists and researchers in its ranks. PEER says that the shuttering will yield these circumstances:
Tens of thousands of unique holdings will be boxed up and inaccessible for an unknown period;
public access to EPA holdings will cease; and EPA scientists, enforcement agents and other specialists will have a much harder time doing their jobs.
These libraries receive more than 134,000 research requests a year from EPA staff. The combined collection of 504,000 books and reports, 3,500 journals, 25,000 maps and 3.5 million information objects on microfilm are available to public and EPA researchers. An inter-library loan program offers materials housed in one EPA library to be transferred to another EPA library geographically closer to the researcher's location.
But that's now history. As of today.
The savings are $2 million. Compare that to the fact that the $2 million saved by the library closures - expressed as a percentage basis- calculates to about 17 minutes of the 2007 Fiscal Year U.S. Iraq War budget
PEER has urged Congress to re-fund the EPA libraries. Several Congressional Democrats have spoken up on the libraries' behalf. On Friday, PEER executive director Jeff Ruch stated his case on NPR's Science Friday. Click on this link to listen.
All this makes me wonder: what does the EPA have to hide? Is the real agenda here to deny the EPA and the public access to historical data that could be used to research and prosecute polluters who are big donors to Republican candidates?