Federal workers at the Environmental Protection Agency are fighting to keep a key laboratory in Houston, warning that following through on a Trump-era plan to relocate the facility to rural Oklahoma would force out dedicated staff and harm heavily polluted industrial communities along the Gulf Coast.
The American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing federal workers, including more than 7,500 EPA employees nationwide, sent a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan on Thursday urging him to reverse course on the Region 6 lab.
“The closing of the Lab in Houston — the petrochemical corridor of the world, with its high concentration of chemical plants and refineries — is counterproductive to EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment” and would be “a step backwards in your commitment to serve environmental justice communities in the Gulf Coast area,” AFGE President Everett Kelley writes in the letter.
AFGE provided Regan with a petition signed by more than 2,400 people opposing the planned relocation of the lab from Houston to Ada, Oklahoma, approximately 400 miles north.
“In an attempt to save money, they are hurting the science,” said a longtime Houston lab employee, who requested anonymity over fear of retaliation. “We have a new administration now and they need to be made aware of these problems, because they’ve inherited this mess. These decisions were made during the last administration in an attempt to shrink the EPA.”
The employee added that the situation has tanked morale at the Houston facility and that they anticipate many staffers will opt not to make the move.
The Houston lab serves all of Region 6 — Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. It conducts air, water and soil testing at hazardous waste sites and in the wake of environmental disasters, such as hurricanes and oil spills.
The relocation, on track to be finalized next year, is part of a series of EPA lab closures and consolidations that the Trump administration advanced beginning in 2017. Notably, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is from Oklahoma and previously served as the state’s attorney general.
So far, the Biden administration has pressed ahead with plans to shutter the Houston facility, maintaining that doing so will cut costs.
“As a result of this co-location, EPA expects to save $1.8 million annually in lease and facility expenses and reduce agency lab space by approximately 41,000 square feet,” reads the EPA’s FY 2021 budget justification document.
But other EPA lab relocations have been plagued by delays and unanticipated costs, the agency’s internal watchdog concluded in a 2020 report.
Nancy Grantham, an EPA spokesperson, told HuffPost that the location change “will not alter the Lab’s service capabilities” and that the agency will retain staff in Houston to handle emergency response, inspections and enforcement.
“EPA takes seriously the concerns of its workers and values their input,” she wrote in an email response. “In keeping with this commitment, we work to ensure full transparency into decision-making that affects their working conditions and lives. The agency is following the direction set forth by Congress for more than 10 years to reduce its federal footprint to be more efficient and effective with taxpayer dollars.”
“The agency will be fully able to meet our commitment to serving communities in the Gulf Coast area,” she added.
The Trump administration did not hide its motivation for relocating federal workers.
Relocations are “a wonderful way to sort of streamline government,” former President Donald Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said at a 2019 Republican gala in South Carolina, referring to the decision to uproot D.C.-based Agriculture Department employees and move them to the Kansas City area. “It’s really, really hard to drain the swamp, but we’re working at it.”
The approach worked. When the Trump administration moved the Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado, for example, it resulted in nearly 300 employees resigning or taking early retirement. The Biden administration has since relocated BLM headquarters back to D.C.
In its letter to Regan, AFGE stressed that the Biden administration has an opportunity to “rectify misguided decisions by the Trump Administration … to undercut the mission and day-to-day work of dedicated EPA employees.”
“While the Obama Administration studied potential efficiencies from downscaling Federal offices, it was the Trump administration that acted on them in this case, sidelining overarching goals to invest in environmental justice, enforcement, and inspections,” the letter states. “Your administration has a chance for you to undo these harms, and we encourage you to take it.”
Read the full letter below: