WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency intends to close labs, cut its cadre of upper-level scientists and reduce regulatory oversight, according to an internal agency document.
In a memo dated June 8, a top agency official outlined "a set of proposed disinvestments, innovations, efficiencies and consolidations" for the upcoming 2008 fiscal budget.
"The decisions we make will be critical, difficult and will have long-term consequences," EPA Chief Financial Officer Lyons Gray wrote.
He said the EPA wanted to limit duplication and find "opportunities for consolidation and streamlining." EPA assistant administrators, regional administrators, the general counsel and inspector general received the memo.
Gray called for creating "Centers of Excellence" within the agency that would manage "contracts, grants and human resource work."
Asked about the memo, the agency said in a statement, "The EPA is committed to being good stewards of our nation's environment and good stewards of our nation's tax dollars."
It said the agency hoped "to accelerate the pace of environmental protection by promoting environmental results and accountability, innovation and using the best available science."
Jeff Ruch, the executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group that obtained the memo, said that rather than consolidating to improve the agency, the EPA was "chopping up the furniture to meet external budget targets."
The EPA's budget has been dropping steadily since it reached a record $8.13 billion in fiscal 2003. The Bush administration's proposed fiscal 2007 budget was nearly $1 billion lower, but Congress hasn't yet approved a final version. The fiscal 2008 budget plan is due in February. Gray said the financial outlook was "very challenging."
In his memo, he asked for plans to close at least 20 percent of the EPA's 16 research laboratories by 2011 - a minimum 10 percent cut by 2009 and another 10 percent by 2011.
He asked agency officials to suggest upper-level staff cuts, which would include scientists, analysts and managers. His memo hinted that more reductions could be necessary later.
Staff cuts could worsen what some experts have said is already a deteriorating situation, particularly with a significant number of EPA employees due to retire over the next decade.
M. Granger Morgan, the head of the Engineering and Policy Department at Carnegie Mellon University and the chairman of the EPA Science Advisory Board, told Congress in March, "The agency is in danger of losing core scientific expertise in both conventional and emerging environmental issues."
Morgan testified that research and development spending at the agency had fallen more than 16 percent since 2004.
A report in August from the EPA inspector general found that various studies have concluded that the agency doesn't always have reliable data to support its conclusions and "does not always use reliable science to support its rules and regulations."
Gray's memo also calls on the agency to work with state and tribal groups to look for ways to reduce regulatory oversight.
"The state and tribal grants have been reduced 25 percent since the administration started," said Heather Taylor, the deputy legislative director of the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. "First we take away the money to do their jobs, now we take away the oversight."
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