Each year, scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s laboratory in Richmond perform everything from monitoring drinking water to watching over some of the worst toxic waste sites on the West Coast.
The lab even helps respond to environmental emergencies of national significance.
But with “nightmare” budget cuts on the legislative slate, the EPA is closing its Region 9 lab in Richmond. It will be consolidating some of the lab’s services and moving others out of California, a move critics say will cripple the agency’s ability to conduct testing and analysis throughout the region.
Agency spokespeople have refused to speak publicly about the closure, but former EPA employees and union officials confirmed the move with Richmond Confidential. The EPA does not plan to renew the lease for its Region 9 lab — which is located on the grounds of UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station — after it expires in early 2019.
Local environmental groups criticized the decision and accused EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt of undermining the agency’s mission.
“Fundamentally, the EPA is being gutted from within,” 350 Bay Area spokesperson Rand Wrobel wrote in a statement. “The closure of the Richmond lab will undoubtedly degrade the EPA’s capabilities to analyze and protect its Western U.S. and Pacific U.S. region.”
Certain lab functions, such as monitoring potentially hazardous chemicals at Superfund sites, are expected to move to a new facility along Interstate 80 between San Francisco and Sacramento, most likely near Fairfield.
EPA Region 9’s Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), which ensures essential lab functions can continue in the event of a major natural disaster, such as an earthquake, is located at the Richmond lab and will also move to a new facility near Fairfield.
The rest of the lab’s functions, including testing, analysis and sampling services for projects throughout EPA Region 9 — which covers Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada — will move out of the region to Corvallis, Oregon.
“It will certainly have an impact on our sampling and analysis,” said Mark Sims, the president of Engineers and Scientists of California Local 20, the union that represents nearly 300 EPA Region 9 employees.
Sims said EPA officials in Washington, D.C. notified employees in June of their decision to reduce leasing space across the country. The EPA is not renewing leases at similar facilities in Athens, Georgia; Chelmsford, Massachusetts; Houston; and Las Vegas, a move first reported by Reuters.
Enesta Jones, a spokesperson for the EPA, declined requests for comment.
An archived 2010 pamphlet about the Richmond lab estimated that it performs up to 12,000 analyses each year, the vast majority of which support Superfund, the term used for the EPA’s program to clean up the nation’s most hazardous toxic waste sites.
According to the California Department of Toxic Substance Control, Richmond is home to two of California’s 98 Superfund sites.
Kathy Setian, who worked at EPA Region 9 as a Superfund project manager for more than 20 years before retiring in 2012, said the lab consolidations could be part of larger budget cuts, and might result in fewer employees.
In September, the House of Representatives approved a more than 27 percent cut to the EPA’s budget, including a 6 percent cut in buildings and facilities and $58 million for “workforce reshaping,” or buyouts.
“We are living an unbelievable nightmare,” Setian said. “The reductions to the core programs — air protection, water protection, all the basic protections — are being cut very dramatically. Every time we turn around there is something else.”