“EPA has heard and takes seriously the concerns of its employees related to this relocation,” the agency said in a May 3 email to employees. “We hope this new timeline will provide the agency with the opportunity to continue to work with our impacted staff on a smooth transition while ensuring full transparency throughout the process.”
AFGE Local 1003 President Justin Chen said management cited “significant changes within timelines and also costs” for modifications to the Oklahoma lab, in order to accommodate additional employees.
“As everyone knows, due to COVID-19 and the supply chain and logistical issues around the world, essentially everything is quite a bit more expensive, due to inflationary rises in price,” Chen said in an interview Friday.
E&E News reported in June 2019 that former EPA Region 6 Administrator David Gray briefed employees about relocating to the Robert S. Kerr Environmental Research Center in Ada, Oklahoma within the next three years.
Chen said “significant pushback” from both employees and Congress contributed to the EPA’s decision to postpone the lab’s closure.
The Houston lab processes environmental samples for EPA Region 6, which includes Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and the rest of Texas.
Chen said those samples come from Superfund sites, natural disasters and human-made disasters. The Houston processed samples from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Chen said the relocation would disrupt the lives of EPA employees who have set down roots in the area. The Houston lab, he added, serves a region that’s vulnerable to climate change and hurricanes. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria devastated the Gulf Coast in 2017.
“Houston is an incredibly important location to conduct such a mission. It’s in the petrochemical heart of the United States, arguably the petrochemical heart of the world essentially. It’s also an incredibly important area for environmental justice,” Chen said.
He said the Houston lab is also well positioned to gather samples from the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But the Mississippi Delta would be at least an eight-hour drive once lab employees are relocated to Oklahoma.
The EPA in that same budget request also looked to consolidate office space in Washington, D.C and optimize office space at a lab in Athens, Georgia.
The D.C. consolidation was expected to begin in March 2021. It impacts employees who work for the agency’s Office of Research and Development, Office of Land and Emergency Management and Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.
The EPA seeks to move 1,200 employees from its Potomac Yard One building in Arlington, Virginia to the agency’s headquarters at the William Jefferson Clinton Complex in Washington, D.C.
Chen said the EPA also recently closed a lab in Richmond, California and relocated those positions to Corvallis, Oregon. However, Chen said none of the lab employees in California took those relocation offers.
“Now the agency has to basically restock all of that Region 9 lab staff with new hires or transfers, basically, in Corvallis, Oregon,” Chen said.
The EPA also closed and consolidated several sites during the Trump administration.
The EPA’s Office of Research and Development, including its National Exposure Research Laboratory, ceased operations in Las Vegas in 2018, and gave the 50 employees impacted by the closure about six months to relocate to new offices, accept a buyout or step down from their positions.
The agency in 2018 also closed the Large Lakes Research Station in Grosse Ile, Michigan and relocate personnel to the National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor. That move affected about 20 EPA emergency response employees.