E&E News: EPA faces pushback on lab closures
By Kevin Bogardus from E&E News
EPA’s planned laboratory closures are facing pushback from lawmakers on Capitol Hill and union officials at the agency.
EPA scientists with decades of experience could end up leaving the agency if they choose not to relocate across state lines.
Opponents of the closures, who also rallied against the Trump administration when it advanced plans to close the labs, are
now ramping up pressure on the Biden administration to block the moves.
EPA is working on closing its Region 6 lab in Houston and moving that lab’s operations to an agency facility in Ada, Okla.
American Federation of Government Employees Local 1003, which represents EPA Region 6 employees, is looking to
thwart the move.
Justin Chen, president of AFGE Local 1003, said lab staff will have to choose between leaving EPA to stay in Houston with
their family and friends and moving 400 miles away to another state.
“My concern is the loss and potential brain drain of these employees. They are very, very good at what they do,” Chen told
E&E News. “We don’t want them to leave forced out of circumstance, rather than them choosing to leave.”
Chen also said the lab’s Houston location helps to serve EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment.
Samples from industrial accidents in the giant petrochemical hub as well as from natural disasters along the Gulf Coast can
be raced to the lab for analysis.
“It serves an incredibly important function,” Chen said. “It is a city we need to have a presence in, which I imagine was the
reasoning why we had a lab located there, as well.”
EPA spokesperson Tim Carroll told E&E News the agency “takes seriously the concerns of its workers and values their
“In keeping with this commitment, we work to ensure full transparency into decisionmaking that affects their working
conditions and lives. The agency is following direction set forth by previous administrations and by Congress for more than
10 years to reduce its federal footprint to be more efficient and effective with taxpayer dollars,” Carroll said.
The EPA spokesperson noted that in 2010, former President Obama issued memos to first freeze the federal footprint, then
reduce it, and by 2015, the agency had issued a study on how to better utilize its lab space. Also, in 2016, the Federal Assets
Sale and Transfer Act was enacted to reduce federal real property.
“These changes enhance our ability to protect the health and well-being of the communities we serve,” Carroll said.
In 2019, EPA announced the move from Houston to Ada, explaining the “drivers” behind the decision were to reduce the
agency’s leased space and its operational costs, according to an internal email sent to employees. That email also said
analytical and support personnel will move to Ada, while “a smaller presence” of non-lab staff will remain in office space in
Houston (Greenwire, June 20, 2019).
EPA’s Houston lab, which employs about 50 staff, provides technical expertise for Region 6 and can analyze contaminants in air and water as well as chemicals. The lab’s lease expires in June 2023, and its staff could be relocated to Ada that year, AFGE Local 1003 officials said.
Employees who work in the lab are worried about the coming move.
“If we have to relocate, I will have to move away from my family and friends. I will be set back financially,” said an AFGE
member and a scientist who works in the Houston lab. “If we choose to stay in Houston, I will lose my career. I will have to
find alternative employment.”
The AFGE member added, “So when the time comes, I will have to decide what option is the least painful.”
The union has set up a petition opposing EPA shuttering the Houston lab and moving it to Ada. In addition, AFGE Local
1003 has filed two unfair labor practice complaints against EPA for managers holdings talks with employees about the move
to Oklahoma without involving the union.
Chen said both those complaints were going through the investigatory process at the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
“It seems they weren’t aware of their obligations to the union by keeping us in the loop,” Chen said.
In the past, Texas Democrats in the House have resisted EPA relocating the Houston lab. In 2019, Reps. Al Green, Sylvia
Garcia, Lizzie Fletcher and Sheila Jackson Lee sent a letter to then-Administrator Andrew Wheeler expressing dismay over
the move. Fletcher also requested that EPA’s inspector general investigate the lab’s closure (Greenwire, Dec. 20, 2019).
There is congressional support, however, for the EPA facility in Ada, known as the Robert S. Kerr Environmental Research
Center. Soon after the move was announced to staff, Oklahoma Republicans also sent a letter to Wheeler, which was obtained
by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act.
“We continue to be impressed with the Center’s commitment to environmental protection and are confident in its potential for
expansion,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, Sen. James Lankford and Rep. Tom Cole in the letter. “Should opportunities for increasing
responsibilities arise, we respectfully request you give every consideration to the Center.”
Yet the union has cast doubt on whether EPA’s Ada location will be ready to handle lab operations. In its petition, it says the
facility has an energy savings performance contract until 2025, which precludes “significant construction.”
“This raises even more concerns regarding how Region 6’s mission-critical analytical work is going to be performed between
2023, when the lab is scheduled to be moved, and construction completion in Ada, and whether additional costs to the
Agency will be incurred as a result,” the petition said.
The AFGE member who works in the Houston lab said the planned move has created uncertainty among the staff.
“Why does it make sense to move an EPA laboratory from a highly industrialized area along the Gulf Coast that is prone to
natural disasters?” the employee said. “No one has been able to articulate how the move better serves the mission.”
‘Re-review’ of Calif. lab closing plans urged
EPA is also under pressure to back down from shuttering another of its labs.
EPA Region 9’s lab in Richmond, Calif., is slated for closure as well. The agency is moving its operations to a facility run by
its Office of Research and Development in Corvallis, Ore.
That move is expected to be completed by Jan. 31 next year, according to a notice sent to EPA union officials. Five
employees from Richmond will be reassigned to Corvallis, while another four will work in EPA’s Field Services Support
Center in Hayward, Calif.
The Richmond lab serves Region 9, which oversees agency operations in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and the
Pacific islands. It is “a full service, state-of-the-art facility” that can do biological and chemical analysis as well as field
sampling, according to EPA’s website.
Lawmakers have asked EPA to reconsider moving the Richmond lab’s operations.
In a July 30 letter to Administrator Michael Regan, obtained by E&E News under FOIA, 25 House Democrats, led by Rep.
Mark DeSaulnier of California, requested that EPA “re-review” its decision to close the lab, trusting the request would
receive “serious consideration.” They noted that none of the agency employees plans to make the move to Corvallis.
“We asked the EPA to reconsider closing the Richmond laboratory, once under the Trump administration and now under the
Biden administration. It is our sincere hope that the decision to close the lab will be reversed to allow the EPA to continue its
regional, science-based approach to tackling the many environmental concerns facing our region,” DeSaulnier, whose congressional district houses the lab, said in a statement shared with E&E News. “I know closing the Richmond lab will cost the EPA more than it will save them.”
The move to Corvallis has already cost more than what was planned. Last year, an EPA IG report found the relocation was
over two years behind schedule and cost more than $19.4 million, almost $7 million more than planned (Greenwire, Dec. 7,
Mark Sims, president of the EPA unit of Engineers and Scientists of California, IFPTE Local 20, which represents
professional staff in the Richmond lab, said scientists there were declining to make the move to Oregon.
“My understanding is they have 20 years-plus of experience each, so we just lost all of that,” Sims told E&E News. “None of
our folks are going up to Corvallis, so they’re going to have to hire brand new staff up there and give them years to bring
them up to speed.”
Opposition to closing the Richmond lab has only grown on Capitol Hill since the days of the Trump administration.
DeSaulnier signed a letter to EPA then too, sharing concerns about shuttering the facility. Only 11 California House
Democrats signed on at that time.
EPA responded to that letter, saying “co-location” of the Richmond lab to Corvallis would save the agency $2.8 million each
year in rent costs as well as release 44,950 square feet of space.
EPA, however, has not responded yet to the lawmakers’ latest letter about the Richmond lab.
“We are currently awaiting a response from the administration and remain hopeful that they will reconsider the closure,” said
“I think headquarters blew this off,” Sims said, referring to the July 30 letter. “They are going to continue with the movement
and not care about the impact to operations in Region 9.”