Thursday, April 20, 2017 | 2 a.m.
As part of the federal budget process, a White House office in March asked the Environmental Protection Agency to consider relocating its Las Vegas lab to Alabama or another state, according to details of an internal document shared with the Sun.
The agency’s current lease with UNLV, which began housing the federal research and development lab in 1966, expires in September 2020.
The EPA had already planned to move its Las Vegas employees from UNLV’s campus after the lease, but administrators were hoping the lab would stay in the city and remain affiliated with the university. In 2014, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid secured $7.8 million in appropriations to help the EPA plan for a new facility at the UNLV Harry Reid Research and Technology Park.
In 2015, the EPA moved a mobile radiation lab from Las Vegas to Alabama, despite concerns from the delegation and Gov. Brian Sandoval. Now the EPA occupies about 55,000 square feet, and the laboratory is one of 14 national research centers for the agency.
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget document asked the agency for “estimates of cost, viability and any potential mission-related impacts associated with the best options for such a move, whether to Montgomery, Ala., or elsewhere within EPA’s existing footprint.”
Although the document is part of the current budget process, it is unclear whether the directive came from the Obama administration or the Trump administration.
The document, known as a “budget passback,” was drafted by the Office of Management and Budget and reconciles requests from the agency with funding for the rest of the government. The document suggests that the EPA had previously decided not to support what is known as a “build-to-suit lease.” Such leases are common in government work and involve leasing a space that is constructed for an agency’s needs.
The budget document does not indicate whether a decision has been made about leaving Las Vegas. Instead, it directs the EPA to provide the White House budget office “with updated information regarding an alternative to extending the lease at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, such as the relocation of operations and workforce to outside of Las Vegas.” An EPA spokesman declined to comment.
The document was shared with a source who has knowledge of the EPA budget process.
Although the EPA did not respond to a request for comment, it addressed the budget request in a memorandum leaked to the Washington Post in late March. In it, the agency’s chief financial officer asked EPA officials to provide “initial estimates of cost, viability, and any potential mission-related impacts associated with the best options for such a move.” At one point, the memo says that budget estimates include “the decommissioning of part of the Las Vegas laboratory.”
Gerry Bomotti, UNLV’s vice president for finance and business, said the EPA lab benefited the university by providing adjunct professors and research opportunities for graduate students.
“We were hopeful that they would relocate out at the UNLV research park,” he said. “That’s what we had been advocating for because we’d like to keep that connection. We certainly hope that the research activity of the EPA remains in Las Vegas and we continue our academic ties with them.”
This is not the first time the Las Vegas lab has found itself in the crosshairs of the budget process. In 2014, the EPA requested $12 million from Congress that “supports the construction design and engineering for a Las Vegas facility.” A budget summary said, “the project will consolidate EPA’s Las Vegas employees that currently work in many leased facilities under a single facility that will have a smaller footprint than the current leased locations and lower operating and rent costs.”
After a Republican-controlled House committee refused to fund the project, Reid secured $7.8 million to kick-start planning for the project.
In October 2015, a briefing paper for the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents noted that UNLV had worked with the federal government to relocate the laboratory to the UNLV research park but that the “EPA had made little progress in considering long-term space options.”
University administrators have not recently been updated on the project. Eliminating the option of build-to-suit lease could make it more difficult for the EPA to come to the research park or stay in Las Vegas. “It certainly, in my opinion, makes it more difficult,” Bomotti said in an interview this week.