Arbitrator Rules against EPA over Library Closures

Arbitrator Rules against EPA over Library Closures

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (a national alliance of local, state, and federal resource professionals) announced February 28 that a federal arbitrator has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency engaged in unfair labor practices and acted in bad faith when it abruptly ordered the closing of seven of the agency’s 10 regional libraries over the past two years. The decision is the latest in a series of repudiations from Congress and the library, scientific, and environmental communities to the closures and limitation of overall access to decades of data that culminated in a December order to reinstate the brick-and-mortar EPA libraries.

In a February 15 decision, arbitrator George Edward Larney stated that EPA management must “engage the union in impact and implementation bargaining in a timely manner” regarding any issues related to “the reorganization of the agency’s library network that directly affect and may potentially have an adverse impact on the working conditions of bargaining unit employees.”

Acknowledging that the agency “proceeded with a good degree of caution and with a great deal of thought” as early as 2003, Larney stated that nonetheless the cutbacks were unilaterally decided upon by management “with virtually no input by other constituencies such as general public users of the EPA library network, other federal and public library systems, and, in particular and most importantly the several unions representing the agency’s bargaining unit employees.”

The opinion goes on to say that “the very real problem now is to fashion a remedy . . . as it would be impossible for the agency to comply with reopening the libraries that were physically dismantled and closed and, while it would be difficult, but not impossible, to restore the function and hours of operations at the libraries in Regions 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, and 10, doing so would be highly impractical given budgetary constraints.”

“While this ruling is a welcome development,” PEER Associate Director Carol Goldberg remarked, “EPA should not continue to shut the public—which is paying all the bills—out of the planning for restoration of these invaluable assets.”

One such interested patron is environmentalist Verena Owen, who used the Region 5 EPA library in Chicago in 2002 to help make her case against the establishment of a sludge incinerator in Waukegan, Illinois. She told the January 24 Northwestern University publication Medill Reports that she found the library website unworkable due to broken links and lamented the relocation of most print items to a storage area in Cincinnati. “If you need some information, can you wait two weeks or four weeks for the book to come in? In the world I work in, which is air quality, no you can’t,” Owen contended.

Posted on February 29, 2008. Discuss.