Hous­ton EPA lab slated to close in 2020

Branch ex­pected to play a key role in Har­vey re­cov­ery

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - By Bill Lam­brecht blam­brecht@ex­press-news.net

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.

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