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Leon Kaye headshot

In the Wake of Hurricane Harvey, Houston EPA Lab Set to Close

By Leon Kaye

Despite the oil spills and threats of leaked chemicals across the Houston region due to flooding during and after Hurricane Harvey, a local Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laboratory is targeted for closure.

According to the San Antonio Express-News, officials of a union representing some EPA employees in Houston said they were told that the 41,000 square-foot lab could be shuttered by 2020. The Region 6 Environmental Services Laboratory, which serves Texas and four adjacent states, devotes most of its work to testing water and soil samples from Superfund fund sites across the region.

The lab will not outright close either due to budget cuts or as part of the Trump Administration’s goal to eviscerate the agency. Rather, the facility’s lease is up for renewal in 2020 and the EPA has simply decided it no longer needs the space. Reporter Bill Lambrecht said 12 employees have already been offered buyout packages; to date three of them have accepted.

If the Houston lab closes, then the only options are to arrange for the samples to be tested by independent contractors, or to send them to the next closest lab, which is about 400 miles away in Ada, Oklahoma.

That decision has not gone over well with local EPA employees. In addition, other organizations have also singled out the closure for criticism, noting that the lab would close even though the post-hurricane recovery effort would still not be completed until well after the end of this decade.

“Scott Pruitt and Donald Trump are trying to close down the offices that exist to protect us by testing water and soil samples,” said Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter Director Reggie James in a public statement. “Since Pruitt and Trump can’t defend their climate denial in the face of a climate-fueled disaster, they’re trying to shutter the very offices that serve to protect Texans from future environmental and climate disasters.”

The Sierra Club also noted that 13 Superfund sites had flooded during Hurricane Harvey. The local EPA lab reportedly took oil and water samples from several of those locations after many of them were flooded.

In an email to Lambrecht, David Gray, an acting deputy regional administrator for the EPA, confirmed that that the Houston lab’s lease will not be renewed, but he denied the union's claim that the lab was slated for a complete shutdown. Without going into specifics, he explained to Lambrecht in an email, “We are looking at alternatives that will continue to provide the analytical services to support our mission critical work in the Dallas office.”

To be fair, the EPA operates 37 labs across the U.S., and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has long suggested that some of the facilities could be consolidated. And during the waning days of the Obama Administration, the EPA agreed a reorganization was needed.

But the wisdom of closing a lab located in the epicenter of America’s energy and petrochemical sectors merits a closer look – especially in the wake of one of the more destructive weather events to hit the U.S. in recent years. News reports have also confirmed high levels of chemicals in the air around Houston – though critics say the EPA downplayed those pollution levels.

Image credit: Louis Vest/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye