As EPA libraries go digital, public access suffers

For a new Democratic Congress facing big environmental issues from global warming to dwindling fisheries, the first step may be keeping the nation's top environmental libraries from closing – and saving their myriad tomes from ending up as recycled cardboard.

To meet a proposed 2007 budget cut, the Environmental Protection Agency has in recent months shuttered regional branches in Chicago, Dallas, and Kansas City, Mo., serving 15 states, and has cut hours and restricted access to four other regional libraries, affecting 16 states. Two additional libraries in the EPA's Washington headquarters closed in October.

Until these closures, the EPA had 26 libraries, brimming with a trove of environmental science in 500,000 books, 25,000 maps, thousands of studies and decades of research – much of it irreplaceable, experts say.

EPA officials say the closures are part of a plan "to modernize and improve" services while trimming $2 million from its budget. Under the plan, "unique" library documents would be "digitized" as part of a shift to online retrieval.

But while electronic databases are easy to access, they could end up being more costly to use – and thousands of those "unique" paper documents may now sit for years in repositories waiting for the funding needed to "digitize" them, critics say. Meanwhile, the closings are proceeding so quickly that key materials are likely to be lost or inaccessible for a long time, EPA librarians say.

Current and former librarians recoiled over reports that scientific journals worth hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars were thrown in dumpsters in October.

"I was appalled when I heard about what was happening and I'm still upset about it," says Dorothy Biggs, a 10-year veteran librarian with the EPA's National Enforcement Investigations Center Library in Denver who retired in June.

Some observers say the library closures are part of a recent pattern at the EPA.

"We think this is one of several actions the Bush administration is taking to lobotomize the EPA, to reduce its capability, so it's much less able to independently review industry submissions," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based nonprofit group that advocates for federal environment employees.

EPA officials dispute many of the librarians' concerns. The office "is not recycling or disposing of any unique agency documents or externally developed materials, e.g., journals, scientific publications, etc., that cannot be accessed elsewhere," wrote EPA spokesman Suzanne Ackerman in a statement. "We are recycling non-unique documents that can be easily obtained elsewhere. Scientists will continue to have access to these non-EPA journals and publications."

Congressional Democrats, who will hold the majority next year and therefore will have greater control over the EPA's budget, are already seeking to investigate the matter.

In an Oct. 26 letter, Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Frank Lautenberg pleaded for Congress to reexamine the cuts.

The letter asked top Republicans to "solicit and consider public and Congressional input, in an open process, prior to making any decision to close a library, cut services, or dramatically restructure the Agency's library system."

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