Uncertain future for the EPA Houston lab assisting with Hurricane Harvey response

It's been nearly three weeks since Hurricane Harvey slammed into south Texas, and serious environmental and public health concerns remain for the region: Chemical plants have reported leaks and damage, toxic Superfund sites -- areas with hazardous substances and pollutants that the EPA determines require cleanup -- and city and state officials have warned that destructive flood waters could contain harmful bacteria and other contaminants.

The cleanup will take years, according to experts.

Enter the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 6 laboratory in Houston that's been assisting with the Harvey response -- and who's future is up in the air, after employees were told four months ago that the government will not renew the 41,000-square-foot space's lease when it expires in 2020.

The EPA last April publicly announced that as a part of an agency-wide effort to consolidate work space and limit rent costs, it would not renew the laboratory's building lease.

An EPA spokesperson insisted to ABC News that the agency is searching for a new space to move the roughly 50-person team, and that it does not plan to halt the work or function of the facility.

However, multiple sources from the local EPA office in Dallas, as well as the Houston laboratory told ABC News that during meetings with staff in April and June, agency officials did little to reassure the scientists in that the laboratory -- which serves five states -- would even remain in the state.

"It has been very demoralizing," Mark Ford, an attorney at the EPA's office in Dallas and vice president of the American Federation of Government Employee (AFGE) Local 1003, the union representing federal employees, told ABC News. He recounted the anxiety employees from Houston had expressed to his team. "'What should I do? Should I sell my house? Should I put in for a transfer? What about my children in terms of their education here in Houston?'" said Ford, rattling off the questions staff asked.

Clovis Steib, the president of AEFG Local 1003, echoed Ford's sentiments, telling ABC News, "People don't feel valued, the morale has suffered. These people were living under this shadow knowing that they basically got a diagnosis that they have two years on their professional career. There are obligations wherein [the agency] has to offer you a job, but they don't have to offer it in your area."

According to Ford, Steib and a scientist from the Houston lab who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agency representatives conveyed to Houston staff that so far all attempts to find a new, alternative space in the city, had come up empty. During two meetings, first with top personnel from the local Region 6 headquarters and then with representatives from the EPA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., employees asked whether the Houston laboratory would be consolidated with another laboratory in region, one focused on research, located in Ada, Oklahoma. The representatives said it was too early to tell.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the plan to consolidate regional laboratories was introduced under President Obama.

"The Obama Administration started this plan to consolidate regional laboratories, which we are revisiting because Administrator Pruitt strongly believes in supporting states by providing laboratory and scientific expertise to better protect the environment," Wilcox said in a statement to ABC when asked about whether the Houston facility may be moved out of the area." To be clear, we do not plan to eliminate any laboratory jobs and there are no present plans to move the lab out of Houston."

The Houston EPA scientist who requested anonymity said, "If they move the lab to Ada, it is pretty much certain that 90 percent of our people won't go. That means they are going to take all of that institutional knowledge, like 500 years of experience and it is all going to be gone."

The scientist and union leaders also worry that the mission of the laboratory would fundamentally change if it were moved out the Houston area. The facility is responsible for analyzing air, water, soil and biological samples from Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana, but since it is located in the heart of oil and gas country, its scientists are focused specifically on the Texas Gulf Coast, where the highest concentration of oil refineries and chemical plants in the U.S. are located.

In 2016, after an incident at a property owned by the Valero Energy Corporation put drinking water for over 300,000 residents in Corpus Christi, Texas, at risk, it was the Houston lab that was in charge of detecting toxins and determining when the water was safe to drink.

"You could not have a quick response to anything on the Texas/Louisiana Gulf Coast," Steib said. "Lives would be put in jeopardy. The farther you have to drive, the longest it takes to get a sample back to see what you are dealing is time that is going to be protecting public health and safety. Turnaround time is critical."

The EPA scientist echoed Steib's concern. "We think the importance of the proximity to the petrochemical industry is very apparent," he said. "It is our mission to be here in this area and to respond ... It will change the mission of the lab, if you're in a different area," the scientist went on.

The Houston site is not the only EPA laboratory in flux. In April, union leaders representing EPA employees in northern California received a memo about consolidating work space at the San Francisco laboratory too. The memo, obtain by ABC News, specifically talks about "budgetary reasons" for moving scientists and renting part of their building. "Region 9, along with all other regional and headquarter offices, has been asked to reduce the amount of leases space by the end of FY17," the memo reads.

Steib said the memos to other regional offices, plus the headlines about the new administration and direction of the agency, has had the Houston employees especially on edge.

"You hear that and you hear the administration wants to reduce the workforce ... it doesn't bode well," he said.

The Trump administration initially recommended a 30 percent cut to the EPA budget, but congressional Republicans largely ignored that proposition. The current Republican in the House of the Representatives includes about a 5 percent cut to the agency's operational funds.

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