EPA Will Let Houston Lab’s Lease Expire In 2020, Agency Says

Signs near the San Jacinto River Waste Pits U.S. EPA Superfund Site warns people not to enter or consume fish from the area, Friday, Aug. 26, 2016 in Channelview, Texas. (Michael Ciaglo / Houston Chronicle via AP)
September 14, 2017 4:42 p.m.

The EPA will not renew the lease of its lab in Houston, potentially dealing a severe blow to the agency’s role in monitoring the effects of Hurricane Harvey on the area when the current lease expires in 2020.

The San Antonio Express-News reported the news Wednesday, noting that the lab employs roughly 50 people and that “[m]uch of its work has been focused on testing samples from Superfund sites in the region.” The lab has served as a “staging area,” for scientists following Hurricane Harvey, the paper noted.

“The sobering news given to me was that in 2019 they would start tying together loose ends and in 2020 the facility would close because they are not going to renew the lease,” Clovis Steib, an EPA scientist and union leader, told the Express-News.

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However, in a statement to TPM, EPA spokesperson David Gray disputed that the agency had announced the lab’s closing.

“The only action that we have announced is that we are not renewing our current leased laboratory space in Houston,” Gray said. “We are approaching the renewal deadline for our existing lease and needed to make that information public. We are looking at alternatives that will continue to provide the analytical services to support our mission critical work in the Dallas office.”

Steib, reached by phone Thursday, expressed skepticism that the EPA would replace the lab in Houston, saying that the agency would likely consider it “cost prohibitive” to retrofit a similar lab in the area. “There is no other site in the the Houston area that they’ve identified for the people who work there,” he said.

An April 28 memo obtained by TPM from EPA management to union members in Region 9 — which covers Arizona, Nevada, California and Hawaii — explained that the agency had decided to relinquish a floor of the San Francisco regional office for “budgetary reasons.”

“Region 9, along with all other regional and headquarter offices, has been asked to reduce the amount of leased space by the end of FY17,” an assistant regional administrator wrote, justifying the cut.

The next closest regional lab to Houston, the Express-News noted, is in Ada, Oklahoma, 400 miles away.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a friend of the fossil fuel companies and refineries that dot the greater Houston area, came under even more scrutiny following Hurricane Harvey for his agency’s seemingly lackluster response in monitoring the toxic superfund sites, especially those that had flooded during the storm.

The Associated Press reported following the storm that its own journalists had visited a number of affected superfund sites that the EPA had claimed were unreachable, and of which it had only reviewed aerial imagery.

In a statement that did not deny the AP’s reporting, the EPA instead responded by the attacking one of the reporters behind the story.

Pruitt has called superfund sites an agency priority, though the White House’s own proposed budget would slash funding for cleanup efforts at such sites.

This post has been updated.

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