Houston EPA lab slated to close in 2020
Branch expected to play a key role in Harvey recovery
WASHINGTON — Conservationists and labor union officials argued Wednesday that the potential closing of the Environmental Protection Agency’ s regional lab in Houston, which is expected to play a key role in Hurricane Harvey recovery, is among harmful impacts of the Trump administration’s drive to slice staff and mission in the agency.
The EPA’s Region 6 EnvironmentalServices Laboratory, which serves a five-state region, is scheduled to close when the lease on its rented, 41,000 square-foot space in southwest Houston expires in 2020, officials of the American Federation of Government Employees said they were told.
The EPA isn’t saying what will happen after that.
The lab employs roughly 50 people, including chemists and biologists. Much of its work has been focused on testing samples from Super fund sites in the region.
In recent days, the lab has been an EPA staging area in the aftermath of Harvey, a scientist at the lab said, adding that employees were told they can expect to do water testing during the recovery.
The potential closing raises the prospect that water or soil samples in the future might need to be sent to another EPA lab or, perhaps, tested by independent contractors. The nearest EPA regional lab is in Ada, Okla., 400 miles from Houston.
At a news conference in Washington called to protest pending EPA cuts, critics said the decision to close the existing lab is ill-advised and would complicate the agency’s work in the Gulf region.
“What’s in the water coming into my house? The EPA is the agency that everybody is counting on,” said the Sierra Club’s Mary Anne Hitt, referring to therole after disasters like Harvey.
John O’Grady, who heads the AFGE section representing EPA employees, called the potential closing “disconcerting.”
“We have a laboratory in Houston that is state of the art and is situated directly in an industrial petrochemical complex,” O’Grady said at a news conference. “That laboratory is slated for closure. Why? How much money are we going to save with that?”
Clovis Steib, an EPA employee and the union president in the Dallas region, said in an interview that EPA officials told him in April about the decision to close the lab.
“The sobering news given tome was that in 2019, they would start tying together loose ends, and in 2020, the facility would close because they are not going to renew the lease,” Steib said. “They would shutter it, and people there wonder, of course, what does that mean for me?”
The EPA recently offered buyouts to 12 people at the lab; three of them accepted the packages, Steib said.
Union officials visited offices of Texas members of Congress on Wednesday seeking to build support for keeping the Houston facility open.
In an email, David Gray, the EPA’s acting deputy regional administrator for Region 6, acknowledged that that the lease in Houston won’ t be renewed but disputed the union’s conclusions.
“We are looking at alternatives that will continue to provide the analytical services to support our mission critical work in the Dallas office,” he said.
As a candidate, President Donald Trump vowed to reduce the EPA to “little tidbits” and early in his administration proposed reducing the agency’s budget by 31 percent and cutting staff by onefourth.
Those cuts have since been scaled back by appropriators in Congress, but the reductions likely will be significant.