EPA and Union Agree on Process for Reopening Libraries

In 2006, the EPA closed libraries in three regional offices and its Washington, DC, headquarters in a purported effort to reduce costs by up to $2 million. The closings included the specialized Chemical Library located in Washington, DC. EPA also reduced operating hours and public access to several remaining libraries. The closings generated substantial controversy and opposition within Congress and among EPA staff, as well as a highly critical report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Congress ordered the reopening of the libraries and appropriated $1 million to that goal in December 2007.

The EPA's network of libraries provides the public and EPA staff with technical information and documentation used in enforcement of regulations and the tracking of health risks associated with various chemicals. The scientific information held in these libraries is used in the development and refinement of health and safety rules and regulations by the EPA and state and local governments. Much of the material is unique to the EPA and is not available elsewhere.

The MOA establishes the American Federation of Government Employees, Council #238 as a negotiating participant in any changes to EPA library network operations. The agreement draws heavily on the EPA's March Report to Congress, outlining how EPA would use the $1 million appropriation to reopen the libraries. The agreement expands upon the agency's plan and elaborates on several parts.

The libraries are still scheduled to reopen by Sept. 30. Each location will be equipped with computer workstations for EPA staff and the public and will be staffed by trained librarians. Libraries must have "appropriate" shelving, space for microfilm and microfiche equipment, and "reasonable square footage" to meet the users' needs. Additionally, space must be provided in regional libraries for local and region-specific environmental materials.

Although several of the concerns expressed by watchdog groups are mentioned in the agreement, many remain unaddressed or unclear. Beyond inclusion of the employee union, there is no mention of additional stakeholder input in the planning process for the library network. The exact amount of physical space and other resources that will be allotted to the libraries is not clear, and the plans for digitizing the library materials remain uncertain. In June, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) reported that the EPA's plans for reopening the libraries provided significantly less space for the remaining materials, and, in the case of the Chemical Library, would amount to just one six-shelf bookcase housed in a 150-square-foot space.

The agreement supports EPA's decision to consolidate the Washington, DC, Headquarters Repository and the Chemical Library into one unit overseen by the Office of Environmental Information (OEI) and the Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances (OPPTS). Public interest groups have raised concerns about the potential for political interference in library operations resulting from control by the OEI, which is headed by a political appointee. The new inclusion of the employee union in the planning process may serve to address the concerns of stakeholders like PEER and other groups.

The MOA also creates a six-member Union Management Advisory Board, with equal representation by the union and EPA management. The Advisory Board will review and make recommendations on the operations and development of the library network. The board will conduct a formal needs assessment of the library network and develop recommendations for its strategic direction. The EPA's Office of Environmental Information will review and "seriously consider" the Board's recommendations. The Board's first meeting will be within 90 days of the enactment of the MOA. The union and EPA also agree to collaborate to achieve "balance and cost efficiency" when considering the structure of the library network.

EPA will report within two weeks of the MOA's enactment on the status of its efforts to digitize the library holdings. The agency has agreed to report on digitization every three months after this initial report for the next two years, and then annually.

The American Federation of Government Employees played a significant role in the effort to reverse the decision to close the libraries. In 2006, the union filed a grievance because EPA refused to negotiate with the union over the library closures and reduction in library services. The union sought arbitration to resolve the dispute, which was refused by EPA. In February 2007, AFGE filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge with the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA) because the EPA would not select an arbitrator. In May 2007, the FLRA found merit with the union's ULP, concluding that EPA had committed an act of bad faith by not selecting an arbitrator. This decision pressured EPA into agreeing to the selection of an arbitrator. In September 2007, the Agency and union presented their cases to the arbitrator.

In February 2008, the arbitrator ruled against EPA, determining that EPA violated the Master Collective Bargaining Agreement with AFGE and ordering EPA to negotiate with the union on any library network reorganization. The MOA completed on July 10 is the culmination of weeks of negotiations between AFGE and EPA and comes more than two years after the EPA began closing libraries.

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