Biden Administration Faces Pushback Against Its Upcoming Agency Facility Closures
Agencies are asking employees to "uproot everything" and harming constituents, critics say.
The Biden administration is in the midst of shuttering facilities at multiple agencies, sparking outcry from lawmakers, impacted workers and other stakeholders.
Some of the plans tie back to the Trump administration, including ongoing efforts to close and consolidate laboratories at the Environmental Protection Agency. A Veterans Affairs Department decision to close and relocate an Oklahoma clinic was more sudden, with the agency blaming forces outside its control. The proposals have drawn the attention of members of Congress, who are urging the Biden administration to reconsider.
EPA is in the process of consolidating several of its laboratories, part of an ongoing effort dating back to the Obama administration to shift away from leased spaces. Under President Trump, the agency dramatically ramped up the campaign and began consolidations in Georgia, California, Michigan and Nevada. Toward the end of the previous administration, EPA also kicked off the process of closing a lab in Houston and consolidating it with an existing one in Ada, Oklahoma. The Biden administration has continued the process, telling employees they will have to relocate by 2023.
The move will affect more than 50 employees in Houston, who are voicing their anger over the agency’s decision to stick with the Trump-era decision. Those workers, said Justin Chen, a Texas-based EPA employee who leads the American Federation of Government Employees chapter that represents those impacted, are “on edge.” They are weighing what it will mean for their families, noting it would "uproot everything for them."
“They’re processing what it would mean to move to Oklahoma,” Chen said. “They’re rather unhappy with the prospect of moving from a large metropolis to a smaller area.”
Some Houston staffers have already accepted early retirements and buyouts that EPA previously offered. For those who declined the offers or were ineligible, the concerns are both personal and professional. Houston is a hub for chemical plants and oil refineries and the lab’s current location allows for quick sample processing to ensure protection of the community and environment. Many of the chemists, biologists and other scientists and support staff will likely opt not to move 400 miles north, leading to a brain drain for the agency.
“These people have a passion for their work and a passion for the agency and their agency’s mission,” Chen said, adding they have been wondering who will do their jobs when they leave. “It’s a lot harder to recruit in Ada [than Houston].”
Reps. Lizzie Fletcher and Al Green, both Democrats representing the Houston area, have pushed the Biden administration to reconsider the closure. They are also seeking to add language to forthcoming fiscal 2022 appropriations legislation that would block EPA from spending any funds on consolidating labs. A House-backed version of the spending bill would further require EPA to seek congressional approval before moving forward with any such move.
Melissa Sullivan, an EPA spokeswoman, said the agency was simply following directives issued during the Obama and Trump administrations calling on the federal government to reduce its footprint.
“EPA takes seriously the concerns of its workers and values their input,” Sullivan said. “In keeping with this commitment, we work to ensure full transparency into decision-making that affects their working conditions and lives.”
Chen noted that communication from management has improved under Biden, but so far discussions have involved only logistics of the move. AFGE President Everett Kelley last month asked EPA Administrator Michael Regan to reconsider the move, highlighting the negative impact it would have on the workforce and operations. Like the lawmakers, Kelley stressed the lab’s importance in responding to disasters such as hurricanes and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“We are concerned that if the move goes forward, the regional lab will be unable to carry out its mission for an indefinite period, possibly years,” Kelley said.
EPA is also moving forward on a lab closure in Richmond, California, which has sparked consternation from lawmakers there. In its fiscal 2022 budget proposal, EPA said it would move to the second phase of the Houston closure and “finalize” the consolidation of the Richmond lab with one in Oregon. That is despite a 2020 inspector general report that found with its previous lab consolidations, EPA was experiencing cost overruns and at risk of not reaching its expected savings.
“The congressman remains committed to fighting to ensure the lab stays open and has weighed in with the White House on this,” said a spokesperson for Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., who represents the Richmond area.
EPA has not indicated it is reconsidering the move, however.
At VA, the department made a fairly sudden move to close an outpatient clinic in Vinita, Okla. The decision has also rankled federal lawmakers there, who said the location has provided a “tremendous benefit” to the community including services related to substance abuse, audiology, diagnostic testing, mental health, military trauma and pain management.
Terrence Hayes, a VA spokesman, said the closure was not planned but the result of the property owner increasing lease costs “outside fair market value during the lease renewal.” The department will next year open a new clinic in Claremore, about 40 miles away. To Sens. James Lankford and Jim Inhofe, and Rep. Markwayne Mullin, all Oklahoma Republicans, that solution is insufficient.
“Given the rapidity and lack of transparency of VA’s handling of the clinic closure decision, we hope you will agree that further clarification is in order,” the lawmakers wrote in a recent letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough. “Since closing the Vinita VA Clinic and transitioning to Claremore would force changes on veterans who have greatly benefited from this location and measurably increase many veterans’ drive time to receive healthcare, we urge you to fully consider the negative repercussions of this move on Oklahoma’s veterans.”
Hayes said VA will continue to look for a “workable location” in the same county as the closed Vinita clinic. The Claremont clinic will open in late 2022, as will another in Bartlesville. While the lawmakers criticized VA for failing to engage tribal leadership in the area, Hayes noted both of the new facilities will be in Cherokee Nation.