fire chem plant texas
Large fire at Texas chemical plant
00:47 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

An Environmental Protection Agency lab in Texas that’s assisted with the response to Hurricane Harvey may close, the president of a union representing dozens of employees says.

Clovis Steib, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees local 1003, told CNN the roughly 50 EPA employees at the lab – including chemists, biologists and air, water and hazardous waste inspectors – were told in April that the agency would not renew the lease for the building when it expires in 2020.

EPA offices nationwide have been directed to reduce the amount of leased space at “all other regional and headquarters offices” in order to meet “budget reduction needs,” according to an internal agency memo obtained by CNN.

The EPA acknowledges the Houston lease will end but says it’s looking at future options. A spokesperson who declined to speak on the record said the lab “is too big and is more space than EPA needs,” and insisted the staffing level would remain the same wherever the new lab is located. But nothing has yet been set.

The San Antonio Express-News reported on the planned closure this week.

Coastal Texas has the highest concentration of oil refineries and chemical plants in the United States. After many sites were flooded, the EPA lab in Houston took air, soil and water samples to test for dangerous contaminants and the lab continues to do so.

After explosions at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, Steib said it was scientists at the lab who sampled the air and water. The union says shuttering the EPA Region 6 lab will impede the agency’s future ability to respond to man-made and natural disasters in Texas and surrounding areas.”

“The scientists in this lab test the quality of the environment in the region,” Steib said. “They will be a part of determining when it is safe for storm victims to return to the area, especially neighborhoods near toxic chemical plants and contaminated Superfund sites.”

Aside from Texas, the lab covers New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana but primarily serves the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast because of the high concentration of petrochemical facilities.

Steib said managers explained the news about the building closing to the employees by saying they had exhausted their search for another suitable site and found no alternative options.

But because the employees were not told what the alternative plan was and “EPA didn’t mention the lab would be relocated,” Steib said there was no other conclusion to draw other than their jobs were in jeopardy and the lab would fold.

As the deadline approaches for the lab’s lease to expire in 2020, “the folks in the Houston lab are in limbo; they’re waiting for the shoe to drop. It’s like being on death row,” Steib said. He added that EPA management in Dallas said the directive from headquarters was to reduce leasing properties across the entire agency.

EPA spokesman David Gray said the agency’s “only action that we have announced is that we are not renewing our current leased laboratory space in Houston. 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,” he added.

Steib rejected that response.

“That’s not what they told EPA employees. I have 50 witnesses. This is a lab that’s in the back yard of chemical companies – of course they want this lab closed,” Steib said.

He added that a new space would have to be retrofitted for all of the EPA’s equipment, which includes infrastructure for fire suppression and special ventilation.

“You can’t just move like you move an apartment. The new space would need to be (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) certified. It’s quite the undertaking that takes time and money.”