EPA Torches Its Libraries

It has been painful to watch the Bush Administration’s contempt for democracy, due process of law and rationality itself. But one of the most lurid expressions of this contempt has gone largely unnoticed — the torching of the Environmental Protection Agency’s priceless libraries.

In defiance of congressional requests, the EPA is hastily purging records from its library websites, throwing out paper documents, selling off library equipment and closing the physical facilities that give scientists and the public access to environmental information. This unprecedented move will cripple environmental protection for years to come, yet it has received hardly any attention in the mainstream press.

The purported goal of this shutdown is to save money. How much? A paltry $2 million out of an $8 billion EPA budget for 2007. Like so many other Administration announcements, this one is a transparent lie. The agency has taken no steps to persuade Congress to save the libraries, nor explored ways to mitigate the obvious harm it would cause. Quite the contrary: EPA is trying to destroy or restrict access to environmental information as rapidly as it can.

The library for the Office of Prevention, Pollution and Toxic Substances was closed in November without notice, and library staffers were reportedly ordered to throw collections into recycling bins. In Chicago, home to one of the EPA’s largest regional libraries, the Agency hastily sold furniture and equipment that it had purchased for $40,000, for $350. The buyer estimates that she will get $80,000 by re-selling everything.

EPA claims that all of its library documents will eventually be digitized and made available online. But this laudable idea will cost money that the agency does not have, is not seeking and has no serious plans to implement. The Agency is, however, spending $2.7 million to digitize its personnel files and millions more to publicize the quality of its research programs.

Kelpie Wilson of Truthout.org writes: “…for practical purposes, all of the thousands of reports and maps that now exist only on paper or microfiche will be lost to the public and to agency scientists. They might as well just burn them.” She continues:

Closing the EPA libraries is the perfect symbol to characterize the methods of the Bush administration. Since 2000, the Republicans have cemented their reputation as ushers of a new dark age. They have sought to shroud the light of science by closing libraries and by suppressing scientific reports. They have gagged their own scientists and persecuted whistleblowers. They have cloaked government in secrecy, a prime example being Dick Cheney’s secret meetings with oil companies to draft an industry-friendly national energy policy.

Needless to say, the environmental and library communities are in an uproar over the EPA’s destruction of information. Four incoming committee chairs in the House of Representatives demanded that the EPA Administrator stop the “destruction or disposition” of library holdings. The very next day, EPA removed thousands of document links from its Office of Prevention, Pollution and Toxic Substances website.

The destruction of EPA libraries is positively medieval. It is a brazen attack against the very possibility of self-governance and democracy, and contemptuous of rationality itself. Jeff Ruch, the director of a watchdog group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, put it well: “EPA’s leadership appears to have gone feral, defying all appeals to reason or consultation.” We can only hope that the new Congress convening in January will stop the wholesale sabotage.