E.P.A. Library Closures Could Threaten Public Health

This piece originally ran in the New York Times.

If you needed to find out how much pollution an industrial plant in your neighborhood was spewing, or what toxic chemicals were in a local river, where would you go? Until recently, you could discover the answer at one of the Environmental Protection Agency's 29 libraries. But now the E.P.A. has obstructed the American public -- as well as its own scientists and staff -- by starting to dismantle its crown jewel, the national system of regional E.P.A. libraries.

Until now, any citizen could consult these resources, which include information on things like siting incinerators, storing toxic waste and uncovering links between asthma and car exhaust. E.P.A. staff members and other scientists have counted on the libraries to support their work. First responders and other state and local government officials have used E.P.A. information to protect communities. In the age of terrorism, when the safety of our food and water supply, the uninterrupted flow of energy and, indeed, so much about our environment has become a matter of national security, it seems particularly dangerous to take steps that would hinder our emergency preparedness.

Although lawmakers haven't yet agreed to President Bush's proposed 2007 budget, which includes $2 million in cuts to the agency's library system, the head of the E.P.A. has already instituted cuts. The agency's main library in Washington has been closed to the public, and regional E.P.A. libraries in Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City, Mo., have been closed altogether. At the Boston, New York, San Francisco and Seattle branches, hours and public access have been reduced.

Anyone who needs to understand the environmental impact of, say, living downwind or downstream from a new nuclear power plant, or the long-term public health impact of Hurricane Katrina, cannot afford to find the doors barred to potentially lifesaving information. But neither can the rest of us, whose daily lives and choices will be affected by global warming. We all have a right to be able to get access to information about our air, water and soil.

"Libraries and their professionals are integral to the work of E.P.A. toxicologists," says an agency toxicologist, Suzanne Wuerthele. "Without access to their expertise and extensive collections, it will be difficult to explain to the public, to state agencies, industry and to the courts how and why E.P.A. is protecting the environment over time."

Some members of Congress have begun to bring these cuts to light. The Senate minority whip, Richard Durbin, urged the president to reopen the libraries and rethink his budget request. Eighteen senators sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee asking it to make the E.P.A. keep the libraries open. Representatives John Dingell, Bart Gordon and Henry Waxman recently had the Government Accountability Office start an inquiry into the closings and requested that the E.P.A. administrator, Stephen Johnson, cease the destruction of library materials immediately.

The E.P.A. cannot hide behind the fig leaf of fiscal responsibility. While the agency says the closings are all part of a commitment to modernize and digitize, we are not assured that its public plan is adequate or its skills sufficient. Users within the E.P.A. and the American public need information specialists, like librarians, to manage paper collections and to help them get access to digital material and organize online information.

Fortunately, there's still time to reverse this dangerous threat to a healthy future. The administration could immediately reopen the closed libraries. Congress could conduct oversight hearings to reverse these decisions and prevent any more E.P.A. libraries -- all of them containing invaluable information about our environment, all of them paid for by our tax dollars -- from closing. The American public deserves no less.

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