EPA labs across U.S. face consolidation as budget cuts loom

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is consolidating research and testing laboratories to cut costs, sparking criticism the move will undercut its ability to respond to regional disasters such as Hurricane Harvey.

The EPA plans to relocate or merge at least five labs, including one in Houston responsible for overseeing tests at 13 Superfund program toxic waste sites hit by Harvey flooding, lab employees and union officials said. In June, Kenneth Wagner, an adviser to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, suggested to Houston employees at a meeting in June THAT their work could shift to Oklahoma by 2020, they said.

Wagner said in an interview that the Houston move is not guaranteed. If the EPA was unable to find federally owned property for the Houston office, there was space available in Oklahoma, he said he told workers.

Employees in Texas and elsewhere have been offered buyouts as part of budget cuts.

“It’s very alarming,” said Liz Perera, a Sierra Club policy director. “My biggest concern are the labs that actually test air, water and soil, especially around Houston.”

Leases at facilities in Chelmsford, Massachusetts; Richmond, California; and Athens, Georgia; and the Office of Research and Development (ORD) in Las Vegas are not being renewed, the workers said. Some labs will be relocated to other federally owned buildings, including in other states.

Consolidation will result in fewer labs and the loss of the skills of employees who will not transfer or accept buyouts.

Some chemists at the Las Vegas facility have been offered jobs in Ohio or North Carolina, said Ann Pitchford, a scientist and president of the local National Association of Government Employees union.

“Some people have retired, some people are finding other jobs and some people say they are going to move,” she said.

The EPA said it is revisiting the office consolidations, which were originally proposed under the Obama administration. The plan to move offices to government-owned properties was part of an earlier cost-cutting move.

“Administrator Pruitt strongly believes in supporting states by providing laboratory and scientific expertise to better protect the environment,” spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in an emailed statement. Despite Houston employees fears of a transfer to Oklahoma, Wilcox said “there are no present plans to move the lab out of Houston.”

In March, President Donald Trump’s administration proposed a 31 percent cut to the EPA’s 2018 budget that would eliminate climate change programs and trim air and water quality initiatives.

The EPA lab in Chelmsford likely will move to Rhode Island, said Steve Calder, president of the AFGE local office that represents about 600 Massachusetts employees. He said there were early talks of shutting the lab entirely or moving it out of the region and as far away as New Jersey.

Reporting by Devika Krishna Kumar in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis