Thursday, December 14, 2006

Science Is Taking Another Beating

at the hands of the George Orwell Bush Administration.

(This story is also cross posted at our Wordpress Blog.)

I latched on to this story via Stolen Moments, but it's being covered all over the mainstream press, as well as the BlogOSphere.

Stolen Moments' blog post begins thus:

According to documents released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), in defiance of Congressional requests to immediately halt closures of library collections, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is purging records from its library websites, making them unavailable to both agency scientists and outside researchers, . At the same time, EPA is taking steps to prevent the re-opening of its shuttered libraries, including the hurried auctioning off of expensive bookcases, cabinets, microfiche readers and other equipment for less than a penny on the dollar.

In a letter dated November 30, 2006, four incoming House Democratic committee chairs demanded that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson assure them “that the destruction or disposition of all library holdings immediately ceased upon the Agency’s receipt of this letter and that all records of library holdings and dispersed materials are being maintained.” On the very next day, December 1st, EPA de-linked thousands of documents from the website for the Office of Prevention, Pollution and Toxic Substances (OPPTS) Library, in EPA’s Washington D.C. Headquarters.

Here we go again.

In a September 21st story on Yubanet and repeated on (sources below), the story of the EPA closing public libraries begins somewhat quietly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is closing its Headquarters Library to the public, as well as its own staff, effective October 1. This shutdown is the latest in a series of agency library closures during the past few weeks, according Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As with the other library collections, the books, reports and research monographs in the EPA Headquarters Library have been boxed up and are currently inaccessible to anyone.

The Headquarters Library collection contains 380,000 documents on microfiche (including technical reports produced by EPA and its predecessor agencies), a microforms collection that includes back files of abstracts and indexes, 5,500 hard copy EPA documents, as well as more than 16,000 books and technical reports produced by government agencies other than EPA.1, 3

So the EPA was closing its headquarters library in Washington, and had already begun closing other libraries in Chicago, Dallas, and Kansas City.

According to the Office of Budget & Management Circular A-130, the EPA is required to publicly announce such closures before they happen, and in the case of the headquarters library they made such an announcement, albeit a mere ten days before the closure. In the case of the other libraries, there was no such announcement at all.1, 3

Now although these libraries serve the general public, who really cares about EPA libraries, right? Seriously, have you or anyone you know ever been to one? Probably not. Is one of these libraries on your list of ten places you simply must go before you die? Probably not even on your top 100 list.

Here's the thing. These libraries are accessed all the time by environmental scientists. These libraries house boatloads of information and data collected about the environment by all sorts of methods, and necessary for the proper study of environmental change. They are necessary for enforcement officials of the EPA itself to track and expose polluters. Ahhh... herein lies the crux of the matter.

Scientists who are studying both natural and human effects on global climate change are now without several huge repositories of historical and current data on the environment. EPA enforcement officials are now unable to compare the amount of current pollution in a local stream or river to the amount of pollution say, twenty years ago.

This is a serious problem, and it was seen as such by Congressional Committee leaders.

EPA's library closures (which the agency euphemistically calls "deaccessioning procedures") are sparking congressional scrutiny. On September 19th, the Ranking Members of the House Committee on Science, Energy & Commerce and Government Reform (Reps. Bart Gordon (D-TN), John Dingell (D-MI) and Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), respectively) asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the effects that the EPA library closures will have on access to environmental information and the impacts on scientific research, regulatory quality and enforcement capability.1, 3

A reasonable and important request, given the vast amounts of important data being boxed up quietly and indefinitely.

The EPA's rationale? Funding. The EPA tells us that it will save a large amount of money by closing these libraries and digitizing their contents. That's admirable on its face, but Russel Shaw casts a somewhat different light on the financial situation in the Huffington Post.

In an action unknown to almost all Americans except policy wonks, the Environmental Protection Agency has begun closing its network of 27 technical libraries. The process, which also includes the EPA Headquarters library in Washington, D.C., was set to begin today, October 1, the onset of the 2007 Fiscal Year. Some $2 million will be saved by the closures.

Yet with seeming eagerness, the EPA has already begun the file transfer. for is less than a third the amount an internal EPA study estimates the libraries save EPA professionals in staff time and is 80% of the libraries' annual $2.5 million budget has some people wondering if the real agenda is driven by politics rather than financial management.

Although the EPA says in part that the closure is being prompted by the trend to make records accessible online rather than in dead-tree form, virtually none of the EPA records that exist prior to 1990 have been digitized.

Currently, these older records exist either in boxes or on microfilm. The latter storage media is exceptionally expensive to digitize.4

Mr. Shaw also very kindly provides a link to a .mp3 audio podcast of Ira Flatow discussing the situation on Science Friday (we're huge fans!) with Jeff Ruch, of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Interestingly enough, the EPA declined to have a representative appear on the show.5

I'm not surprised.

Rebecca Carr ran an excellent story a month later (November 1st) for Cox Newspapers wherein she cuts to the chase.

But EPA employees and watchdog groups are skeptical that the agency's library in Atlanta will remain untouched in the future.

An internal June 8, 2006, memo from Lyons Gray, the EPA's chief financial officer, to top agency officials, indicates that the agency plans even deeper cuts next year, including at laboratories where much of the agency's research takes place. If labs are closing, employees say, everything is on the table.

In that memo, Lyons wrote that agency must "identify opportunities for consolidation and streamlining." That includes cutting the labs' costs by 20 percent over the next five years and closing an unspecified number of them.

"I think the level of cuts are really just a foretaste of what's to come," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonpartisan environmental watchdog group based in Washington. "Every thing is up for grabs. Atlanta could easily be on the chopping block."

The Bush administration wants to defang the EPA to benefit industry, which has long resisted the agency's pollution reporting requirements, Ruch said.

"This is a slow-motion lobotomy of the agency," Ruch said.6

This is exactly what's going on. The Bush Administration is deliberately hog-tying the EPA to protect big businesses that spew pollutants into the environment, so that they will not be prevented or penalized for their wanton destruction. It's all about the bottom line, and circumventing Congress and the law is no barrier to Mr. Bush.

Francesca Grifo, the director of the Union of Concerned Scientists told the Boston Globe in a story that ran December 3rd, ""Nobody is against modernization, but we don't see the digitization. We just see the libraries closing."7

So while the EPA was insisting that the records would be digitized and made accessible again to the public, two months later the libraries are still closing, and there's no indication of that digitizing.

The next day, the Austin American-Statesman noted:

A group of senior Democratic lawmakers has asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop closing its public libraries and discarding collection materials until it has permission from Congress.

“We request that you maintain the status quo of the libraries and their materials while this issue is under investigation and review by Congress,” Reps. John Dingell, the ranking member of the Energy Committee; Bart Gordon, ranking member of the Science Committee; James Oberstar, the ranking member of the Transportation Committee and Henry Waxman, the ranking member of the Government Reform Committee, wrote in a Nov. 30th letter to Stephen Johnson, the administrator of the EPA.8

Good. The Democrats, soon to be in power, are demanding that the EPA cease and desist its shenanigans.

The same day, Facing South gives us a practical means of pressuring the EPA ourselves.

The letter follows a call earlier this month from Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and 16 other senators to the Appropriations Committee asking the EPA to be directed to halt the closures "while the Agency solicits and considers public input on its plan to drastically cut its library budget and services," the American Library Association reports.

After UCS issued its alert about the closures on Friday, protest calls reportedly began pouring into the office of EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. UCS is asking the public to keep up the pressure by calling Johnson at (202) 564-4700 and urging him to immediately halt the dismantling of the library system until Congress approves the EPA budget and all materials are readily available online.9

Please make that call. Make it several times. Make it several times a day.

Joel A. Mintz and Rebecca Bratspies, Guest columnists for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, hit the nail on the head on December 6th:

One of the hallmarks of the Bush administration's six-year effort to undercut environmental protection has been its contempt for the free flow of information.

Early on, the White House rewrote conclusions of the Environmental Protection Agency's scientists on global warming. Then it refused to disclose which companies and lobbyists helped draft its energy policy. Now it is seeking to weaken the Toxic Release Inventory, the 20-year-old law that requires polluters to disclose publicly the extent of their pollution.10

You'd think by this time the Bush Administration would get the hint: closing EPA libraries is a bad idea. The people who access it are against it, the scientists who make use of the data are against it, the EPA enforcement officers are against it, it won't save much if any money, and can be only detrimental to the health and study of the environment.

But don't hold your breath waiting for Mr. Bush to come to grips with reality.

On December 7th, Yubanet runs a follow up piece.

In defiance of Congressional requests to immediately halt closures of library collections, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is purging records from its library websites, making them unavailable to both agency scientists and outside researchers, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At the same time, EPA is taking steps to prevent the re-opening of its shuttered libraries, including the hurried auctioning off of expensive bookcases, cabinets, microfiche readers and other equipment for less than a penny on the dollar.2

That's right. The same people who told us that the EPA was closing libraries to digitize all the records and save money by putting them all online, is destroying the online records that already exist!

Further, they are selling off the real world assets.

Meanwhile, in what appears to be an effort to limit Congressional options, EPA is taking steps to prevent the re-opening of the several libraries that it has already completely shuttered. In its Chicago office, which formerly hosted one of the largest regional libraries, EPA ordered that all furniture and furnishings (down to the staplers and pencil sharpeners) be sold immediately. Despite an acquisition cost of $40,000 for the furniture and equipment, a woman bought the entire lot for $350. The buyer also estimates that she will re-sell the merchandise for $80,000.

"One big irony is that EPA claimed the reason it needed to close libraries was to save money but in the process they are spending and wasting money like drunken sailors," Ruch added, noting EPA refuses to say how much it plans to spend digitizing the mountains of documents that it has removed from library shelves. "While the Pentagon had its $600 toilet seat and $434 hammer, EPA has its 29 cent book case and file cabinets for a nickel."

In spite of its pleas of poverty, EPA is spending millions on a public relations campaign to improve the image of its research program, as well as a $2.7 million program (more than its estimated savings from library closures ) to digitize all employee personnel files, in a program called "eOPF."

"No one believes that EPA is closing libraries and crating up irreplaceable collections for fiscal reasons," Ruch concluded. "Instead, the real agenda appears to be controlling access by its own specialists and outside researchers to key technical information."2

On the 8th of December, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Leslie Burger, the president of the American Library Association and director of the Princeton Public Library, decrying the closures.11

On the 9th, the Los Angeles Times' Tim Reiterman ran a story detailing another impact on science.

The NASA library in Greenbelt, Md., was part of John C. Mather's daily routine for years leading up to the astrophysicist's 2006 Nobel Prize for shedding new light on the Big Bang theory of universal origin.

So when he learned that federal officials are planning to close the library, Mather was stunned.

"It is completely absurd," he said. "The library is a national treasure. It is probably the single strongest library for space science and engineering in the universe."12

There is no longer any pretense behind which they can hide. The administration is deliberately denying access to publicly owned federal documents and records. It is actively blocking scientists and researchers from exposing the damage that large polluters are doing to the environment. It is closing off information about global warming and astrophysics. It isn't doing it to save money, it isn't doing it to modernize access. It is doing it to promote an alternate reality wherein the public sees and hears only what the White House wants it to see and hear.

These tactics are well known across the globe. There have been many governments over time that limited the free access to information. Not a one of them did it for democratic principles. Not a one of them did it for the people.

This administration is no exception. George W. Bush, who is the ultimate boss of the EPA and other executive branch libraries, is responsible for this egregious attempt at censoring information from the public that directly contradicts his propaganda version of reality.

This war on science led by the President must be stopped in its tracks.

Hat tip and thanks go to TimeThief at Stolen Moments

1. Yubanet Original Story
2. Yubanet Follow-Up
4. Huffington Post
5. Science Friday podcast (.mp3)
6. Cox News
7. Boston Globe
8. Austin American Statesman
9. Facing South, the blog of the Institute for Southern Studies
10. Seattle Post Intelligencer
11. New York Times op-ed
12. Houston Chronicle

1 Eloquent Orations:

On 12/14/2006 12:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous waxed damned near poetic whilst opining...

Holy cow, JanieBell. This is criminal!

Too bad I didn't know about this so that I could bring it up in class last night. (I'm done for the semester.) I think I'll e-mail the link to my professor anyway.

Closing libraries never "saves money," certainly not the Sovietesque purge that is going on here! Thank you for this!


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