House Dems push EPA to postpone library closures

Plan to change how services are delivered requires time for scrutiny and public comment, congressional staffer says.

Four Democratic representatives likely to lead key oversight committees next year have demanded that the Environmental Protection Agency halt actions to dismantle a system of regional libraries until the plans have been studied more closely.

In a letter sent last week to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, the members directed him to confirm in writing by Monday that the agency had ceased the ongoing process of disposing of some library records and giving others away.

The letter was signed by Democratic Reps. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, John Dingell of Michigan, James Oberstar of Minnesota and Henry Waxman of California. The four currently serve as ranking members of the House committees on Science, Energy and Commerce; Transportation and Infrastructure; and Government Reform, respectively.

In September, Gordon, Dingell and Waxman asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the administration's plan to close part of the library system, and last month a group of 18 senators petitioned appropriators to fund the libraries long enough so that the public could have a chance to comment on the closure plans.

The lawmakers noted that EPA's libraries contain more than 500,000 books and reports, 3,500 different journals, 25,000 maps and 3.6 million items on microfilm, according to a 2004 report. "It now appears that EPA officials are dismantling what is likely one of our century's most comprehensive and accessible collections of environmental materials," the House lawmakers wrote.

In August, EPA published a plan to change how it delivers library services to its staff and to the public. The plan, developed in anticipation of budget cuts, entailed closing at least three regional libraries, eliminating physical access to collections at the agency's headquarters library and blocking the public's access to professional librarians.

The agency has said the plan will make the materials more universally accessible and all EPA-unique documents from the closed libraries will be available online within two years. A spokeswoman declined to say Monday whether the closures would be stopped.

A staffer for the Science Committee, who asked not to be named, said on Monday afternoon that the panel has not yet received a formal response to the letter, but had been in contact with the agency.

The staff member said lawmakers were surprised that EPA decided to move forward with the plan to dismantle the libraries without public comment, given that the agency in the past has used a "fairly public" process to make such changes. She said the lawmakers want to hear the public's reaction and learn the results of GAO's study to determine whether the closures make sense and, if they do, whether they are slated to be carried out appropriately.

Spokeswoman Suzanne Ackerman has previously said EPA faces no resource problems in digitizing the materials. "Funding is not an issue because the technology is already in place, and labor costs are minimal," she said.

But the Science Committee staffer noted that there are other aspects of digitization that can be crucial in determining how accessible electronic files are. Every scanned document must be checked to ensure it is legible, and must be cataloged correctly and organized in a way that lets people find it, she said.

"There are a lot of things that go into maintaining access to this information that go beyond just digitizing," the staffer said.