Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2018

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Environmentalists decry early closure of Las Vegas EPA lab

Image

Steve Marcus

A view of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Executive Center Building on the UNLV campus Wednesday, shown April 19, 2017.

A Las Vegas lab of the Environmental Protection Agency is closing in September, leaving workers scrambling and Nevada’s Democratic senator seeking answers.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is asking the EPA to justify the expedited move, saying in a letter that she wants answers by Friday. It’s unclear what her next step is if the office fails to respond.

“Several of my constituents now have many life-changing decisions to make in a short time frame that not only affects them but their families, other professional commitments, as well as the outcome of their ongoing research efforts,” Cortez Masto said in the letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. “I urge you to give them the full support of your agency and help provide them with certainty and specificity.”

The lab researches environmental health risks from chemicals and other substances. The agency told staff on Feb. 6 that the Las Vegas office of the National Exposure Research Laboratory would close Sept. 30 in compliance with an Obama-era directive to reduce leased space at the EPA.

Officials originally intended to consolidate NERL offices by 2020. NERL researcher Ann Pitchford, the local National Association of Government Employees union representative and president, said eight EPA chemists were notified last year that their office would be moving to North Carolina, and an all-staff meeting in February was the first time she and her colleagues learned they would be impacted by closures sooner than expected.

“It catches a lot of us by surprise based on what we were told 18 months earlier, which was, the chemists will be moving but everyone else can stay here for roughly five more years,” Pitchford said. “Some people even bought houses at that point and then a year and a half later it’s like, ‘We’re going to pull the rug out from under you.’”

More than 50 government workers, contractors, volunteers and human resources personnel who work in the EPA’s offices in Las Vegas will be impacted. The EPA has 17 human resources staff located across Maryland Parkway east of UNLV, Pitchford said, and 33 of the agency’s federal employees under its Office of Research and Development are on the UNLV campus in leased buildings.

The closures will end jobs for 26 contractors and two volunteers, Pitchford said. Contractors include student research assistants and a librarian, among others.

Pitchford said the HR personnel have to be out of their Las Vegas office by June 30, months sooner than the Sept. 30 date given to the rest of the EPA staff. One office across the street from UNLV will remain open, Pitchford said. The agency moved out part of one building and a greenhouse that UNLV turned into more parking.

The EPA’s lease budget at UNLV is about $2 million, decreasing as the agency vacates buildings. The university plans to put classes and labs in the now-empty spaces within the year, according to UNLV. The Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents had approved $2.9 million to renovate parts of the EPA complex.

Government employees in the closing offices have been given the option to relocate, retire or resign. Pitchford said a $25,000 incentive payment has been offered to those who retire by June 30, but that hasn’t been put in writing. The omnibus spending bill recently passed by Congress also created some confusion about whether it was prohibiting EPA office closures, Pitchford said. It appears that language only applies to regional offices, she said.

“People are trying to make decisions and just find it a constantly moving landscape,” she said.

Pitchford is part of a multi-expert research project into pesticides in the California central valley, and endangered species such as salmon that are impacted in the Sacramento River. She said the group’s cutting-edge approaches use geographic information to map hot spots for pesticides in the river.

She said she feels torn about retiring, which she is eligible to do, before the work is done. The research is planned through 2020, and Pitchford said it makes sense for her to be in the West to see the work progress.

“I feel a personal dedication to it,” she said. “To see it finish, to see it come to closure, to see the papers get written and information shared widely among the people who are concerned, the people who are the farmers.”

The EPA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“This brash move by the Trump administration and his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, shows their blatant disregard for both science and the public servants of Las Vegas that have spent their lives protecting Americans from the dangers of pollution and toxic chemicals,” Elspeth DiMarzio, Sierra Club campaign representative in Nevada, said in a statement.

Pitchford said the original plan to consolidate by 2020 allowed people time to adjust. Most of those who will be impacted are in the second half of their careers, and others who recently earned promotions want to stay on long enough to impact their retirement pensions, she said.

“We are highly educated, very motivated people and we’ll work this out,” she said. “But we are dedicated to EPA, and we do want to complete our work. So it’s very frustrating.”