Lawmakers say EPA’s numbers don’t add up

GAO agrees to review agency’s plans for digitizing documents its regulators use

House Democratic leaders have asked the Government Accountability Office to review the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to close some of its libraries as the agency converts a network of physical libraries to a digital library system. The lawmakers are concerned that thousands of documents might become inaccessible during the switchover, but EPA officials say they will ensure that doesn’t happen.

In a Sept. 19 letter to GAO’s Comptroller General David Walker, ranking Democratic Reps. Bart Gordon (Tenn.) of the Science Committee, Henry Waxman (Calif.) of the Government Reform Committee and John Dingell (Mich.) of the Energy and Commerce Committee wrote that because of “inadequate planning and lack of funding for digitizing documents, access to many documents will be temporarily or permanently lost.”

The lawmakers want GAO to review the plan for restructuring the library system, including its justification and implementation. “The plan aims to continue to provide access to documents electronically but does not discuss the number of documents that would need to be digitized, the time frame or the amount and source of funding that would be necessary to carry this out,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Bush administration’s plan, which is part of the president’s fiscal 2007 budget recommendations, proposes to save $2 million by cutting more than 30 percent of the EPA libraries’ funds. The plan would shut down three regional EPA libraries and the agency’s headquarters library. It would cut the hours of operation at other EPA libraries, according to agency officials. The four facilities are slated to close by Oct. 1.

“It appears that [the] EPA plans to shut libraries first and digitize documents later,” the lawmakers wrote. They also questioned whether the administration’s plan would save money.

The nationwide EPA Library Network consists of 28 libraries. The EPA’s scientists, regulators and attorneys use the collections and services to gather the information they need to conduct environmental assessments, develop regulations and enforce laws.

GAO officials have granted the lawmakers’ request, said GAO spokesman Paul Anderson. But because of its workload, the agency would probably delay beginning the study for 60 to 90 days, he said.

Mike Flynn, director of the Office of Information Analysis and Access at the EPA’s Office of Environmental Information, said about 40,000 unique EPA documents must be digitized.

Flynn said the EPA recently completed digitizing more than 9,000 documents, which constitute all of Region 5’s holdings, leaving approximately 30,000 to be digitized in the next two to three years. The Region 5 library in Chicago serves Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and 35 tribes.

The EPA plans to finish digitizing all the documents from the four closing libraries by January 2007, he added.

During the transition, Flynn said, all the documents will remain available to the EPA and the public through special arrangements that the agency has made. Documents from the Region 5 library, which is closing its physical space, have been shipped to an EPA digitization facility in Cincinnati, he said. The materials from the other two regional libraries and headquarters will follow. Throughout the process, the EPA will maintain an inventory of the paper documents and a record of their location.

If the EPA receives a request from a patron, employees can find the paper copy, Flynn said. If the requested document has not yet been digitized, the EPA would ask whether the requestor could wait to receive the document in electronic form. If the need is urgent, the EPA would retrieve the document from the digitization sequence and send the requestor a paper copy.

In the future library network, Flynn said, the EPA will have at least one human liaison to connect local library users with a librarian. The librarian, who might be located elsewhere, can get the requested documents. If the materials are in an older format, such as microfiche, the EPA will provide them via interlibrary loan. If they are digitized, they will be available through the National Environmental Publications Information System’s Web site, nepis.epa.gov.

Flynn said the new library network will provide more materials and greater access for the public and EPA employees.

“We are moving to a system that’s relying more on an electronic method of delivering library services,” he said. “It’s changing the way we will deliver the services. It’s not taking them away.”

Environmental group opposes library closuresOpponents of library closures say the Environmental Protection Agency underestimates the cost of removing documents from the EPA’s libraries and putting them online.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said EPA officials are not providing an accurate count of the documents in the EPA Library Network for which they must find funds for digitizing.

EPA officials say they do not have a precise figure on the cost of digitizing some of its document collections. They estimate that 40,000 documents must be digitized as part of the restructuring. EPA officials also say the agency recently completed digitizing more than 9,000 documents, which constitute all of the Region 5 holdings, leaving about 30,000 to be digitized in the next two to three years. The Region 5 library in Chicago serves Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and 35 tribes.

Increasing the number of EPA documents available online may be a good idea, Ruch said. However, the EPA has been silent on the question of funding, he added. “What is the budget for this in-house digitization process, and will that budget have to increase to handle this workload?” he asked. “If there needs to be a budget increase, from where will those funds be drawn?”

— Aliya Sternstein

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