Energy & Environment

Employees and lawmakers worry the planned closure of EPA’s Houston lab could dampen emergency response in the Gulf Coast

Plans to relocate the lab continue to move forward, but some employees are hoping the Biden administration will halt the move, given its commitment to environmental justice and Houston’s strategic position along the Gulf Coast.

Critics worry that moving the Houston lab to Oklahoma will slow down emergency response during disasters.

The Environmental Protection Agency is continuing to move forward with its plan to shut down its Houston lab, even as employees and lawmakers voice concerns over whether the decision would slow emergency response during hurricanes and industrial disasters.

"There's feelings of confusion," said one long-time Houston lab employee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. "No one has ever been able to really articulate how this is going to benefit the mission of the EPA to protect human health and the environment or how it will improve the science to move the laboratory."

Plans to shut down the Houston lab have been in the works for several years. In 2019, the EPA confirmed the lab would be shut down and relocated to Ada, Oklahoma — citing budgetary savings.

In an online petition opposing the move, EPA employees emphasized Houston's strategic location along the Gulf Coast.

"When the lab moves up to Oklahoma, it’s 400 miles away in a more rural area, so it will take more time to get samples up there especially in emergency response situations," the lab employee who spoke with Houston Public Media said. "A lot of the emergencies that the lab has responded to, either natural or industrial accidents, have occurred along the Gulf Coast area, whether it’s hurricane responses or oil spills, industrial accidents, some water contamination problems, those sorts of things tend to happen along this industrial corridor here along the Gulf Coast."

The Houston lab has analyzed samples after the ITC fire in Deer Park in 2019, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010, and major hurricanes. The EPA has said an on-scene coordinator will remain in Houston to handle emergency response, but samples would still need to be sent to Oklahoma for analysis.

The EPA didn't respond to a request for comment, but in its fiscal year 2021 budget justification, the agency listed the Houston lab relocation as part of an initiative to optimize space and cut back on costs — the agency leases lab space in Houston, but owns the facility in Oklahoma.

"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 document.

A 2020 report by the Office of Inspector General found that other lab consolidation efforts by the agency were poorly managed and overrun with costs and delays.

Plans to relocate the Houston lab continue to move forward, according to union members, who say they were told management plans to relocate staff to Oklahoma by 2023. But some employees said they're hopeful the Biden administration might halt the move, especially given its commitment to environmental justice.

"Houston is very much an environmental justice area, let alone the rest of the Gulf Coast," said Justin Chen, the head of the union for Region 6 EPA employees. "So it seems that a strategic location like the Houston lab should not in fact be closed, but potentially expanded to increase its actual mission and the resources it can provide to the Gulf Coast, let alone Houston."

On top of that, he said he worries about "brain drain" if many long-term employees are either unable or unwilling to move to Oklahoma.

These concerns have been echoed by local members of Congress.

In a letter sent last year to the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher asked the subcommittee to include language in the appropriations bill that would "would prevent the EPA from closing the Region 6 Houston Laboratory and relocating its employees."

"This closure will undoubtedly cause the forced retirement of many EPA employees and threaten Houston's access to the critical air, water, and soil testing performed at the Lab and the return of results as quickly as possible," Fletcher wrote.

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