An EPA laboratory in Houston is struggling to do its work because of a skills shortfall, which is being made worse by a planned agency move to a town 400 miles away, four current and former lab staffers tell Bloomberg Law.
Several skilled scientists have either retired or found other jobs because they don’t want to uproot their lives and move to Ada, Okla., where the Environmental Protection Agency lab is scheduled to move in 2027, the employees said.
“I’ve been in Houston over 30 years and already have my home, so why would I want to move somewhere else, to a small little town?” said Abel Euresti, a veteran microbiologist in the Houston lab, who opted for retirement in December 2020 after concluding “it wasn’t worth it” to move.
The Houston lab does chemical and microbiological analyses of air, water, and soil samples throughout Region 6, which spans Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and New Mexico, as well as 66 tribal nations.
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency “has heard and takes seriously the concerns of its employees related to this relocation.” But she said the move—which started under former EPA head and Oklahoman Scott Pruitt—will continue.
‘It’s Taking Longer’
The region is home to many chemical factories, oil facilities, and ports, making it a hot spot for unauthorized releases. Some of the lab’s past work has addressed the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and a 2016 chemical contamination of tap water in Corpus Christi, Fla.
One area in which the skills gap is being felt is water sampling, according to a lab employee who requested anonymity to speak freely.
The 30-person lab is short about five drinking water auditors, said another current lab staffer who also asked not to be identified. Including contractors, the lab now has 41 employees, down from 57 in 2016, before the Oklahoma move was announced, the employee said.
Certified lab employees routinely go to labs run by state agencies throughout the region to make sure they can analyze drinking water samples. That work is still getting done, but “it’s taking longer, and certain staff are being asked to do multiple audits” to make up for a lack of certified personnel, the employee said.
The EPA is now four to six months behind schedule, partly due to the lack of certified staff, but also because the coronavirus pandemic prevented agency personnel from doing on-site audits, according to the employee.
“It takes a long time to train as a drinking water auditor,” the staffer said. “You need many years of lab experience, then additional training to go out to state labs.”
Justin Chen, an EPA environmental engineer in Houston who also serves as president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1003, said he’s aware of job listings for positions in both Houston and Ada, “which suggests that there are not enough employees in the lab to fulfill its obligations.”
The EPA didn’t directly respond to questions about whether it’s having difficulty hiring scientists for the Houston lab.
Replacements Hard to Find
The planned move also makes it hard for the EPA to find qualified replacements because few people want to take a position that’s going to relocate to a different state—even if that move is five years away, Chen said.
“I don’t blame them,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be put in that situation.”
Some of the departures have been refilled with new lab personnel. But many of those scientists aren’t yet qualified to do all of the lab’s science work, according to Euresti, the recently retired scientist.
“Anybody that’s newly hired is going to have to be retrained,” he said. “Some of the people they’ve hired haven’t gone to the certification courses. It’s going to take years to do that. It’s not a quick thing.”
Not all of the staff cuts can be chalked up to the planned move, according to Chen. Some staffers who retired likely would have done so even if the lab was staying put, while others took early buyouts offered by the Trump administration when the relocation was announced, Chen said.
In March, an EPA spokesman said the relocation “will not alter the lab’s service capabilities,” and that the agency “will be fully able to meet our commitment to serving communities in the Gulf Coast area.”
Delays in Move
The AFGE, along with Reps. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas) and Al Green (D-Texas), have publicly called on the EPA to stop the move to Oklahoma. But the EPA spokeswoman said the move is still on.
Though the plan started under Pruitt, the formal justification for it is a 2010 directive from the Obama administration that told agencies to make better use of their space, including by consolidating offices.
The EPA issued a report in 2015 on how to better use lab space. Congress also passed a bill in 2016 aimed at reducing the federal deficit by consolidating and selling federal buildings and other properties.
The agency spokeswoman said the move to the existing Robert S. Kerr Environmental Research Center Laboratory in Ada has been deferred to 2027 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The design and construction phases were originally expected to be finished in fiscal 2023. Funding restrictions also mean the construction must be completed in phases.
Further, an environmental due diligence process at the Ada lab “is taking longer than expected,” delaying the start of construction until November, the spokeswoman said. Staff will be moved after infrastructure and workspace construction is finished, she said.
In the meantime, the EPA will work with the General Services Administration to “identify options for a lease extension” in Houston, since the current lease expires in June 2025, she said.
The new 2027 target date will let the agency “continue to work with our impacted staff on a smooth transition while ensuring full transparency throughout the process,” the spokeswoman said.
The Houston laboratory isn’t the only EPA lab to be a source of employee concerns. An agency forensics lab in Colorado became the subject of an agency internal watchdog investigation after workers cited a “culture of fear,” reprimands from senior management, and low staff morale.