Fate of EPA office closures unclear after omnibus deal

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Environmental Protection Agency employees outside the Beltway might have felt relieved last month when President Donald Trump signed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill for the rest of fiscal 2018.

The omnibus deal not only spared the EPA from major cuts proposed by the Trump administration —the White House’s budget plan last year called for cutting its budget by nearly a third — but it appeared Congress had also put the brakes on the administration’s plans to restructure the agency.

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In an explanation of the spending bill, House lawmakers seemed to walk back the EPA’s plans to shutter or consolidate agency offices later this year.

“The agreement does not include any of the requested funds for workforce reshaping. Further, the committees do not expect the agency to consolidate or close any regional offices in fiscal year 2018,” lawmakers wrote.

However, the EPA is moving ahead with plans to close agency facilities in Las Vegas, Nevada, according to Tim Watkins, the director of the National Exposure Research Laboratory.

“We are currently proceeding with plans to consolidate [Office of Reseach and Development] functions in Las Vegas into other ORD locations,” Watkins told Federal News Radio on Friday.

Ann Pitchford, an EPA research physical scientist based at the National Exposure Research Laboratory in Las Vegas, said she and her colleagues received a “notice of directed relocation” in March indicating that the closure would go on as planned.

“EPA staff in Las Vegas are saying, ‘What do we do now? What’s going to happen?’ Pitchford told Federal News Radio in an interview Thursday.

In February, the EPA announced that the Office of Research and Development (ORD) would end operations in Las Vegas by Sept. 30, which would affect 34 employees. The agency told affected employees they must transfer to offices in Cincinnati, Ohio, or in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park by this summer.

EPA Las Vegas employees who choose not to relocate would have to either resign or retire, Pitchford told Federal News Radio in February.

The office closure would also affect 17 human resources personnel within the Office of Administration and Resources Management (OARM) and would lay off 28 contractors.

It’s unclear whether the EPA Las Vegas closures go against the language in the omnibus. According to Pitchford, it all depends on how you define “regional offices.”

The EPA has 10 regional offices that serve as hubs for multiple states and U.S. territories. But it’s unclear whether lawmakers sought to protect those hubs, or agency sites in individual cities.

“When EPA people read that guidance in the omnibus bill, what they see is ‘Oh, they’re not talking about ORD laboratories. They’re only talking about the regional offices.’ Now, to a layman who uses the word ‘regional’ in a broader sense, every laboratory and facility that’s not in Washington, D.C. is a regional facility. So it’s not clear what the intention was. And that’s being used on the EPA side to say it doesn’t apply to these decisions about Las Vegas laboratories,” Pitchford said.

During his tenure at the EPA, Administrator Scott Pruitt has considered breaking up the 10 regional hubs, and instead installing an agency office in each state capital.

Pitchford said the ambiguity over the wording of the omnibus has left her colleagues feeling uncertain about the fate of their current workplaces.

“I have to think that the language they were writing in was coming from the staff of senators and others who don’t parse their words quite so carefully in some cases,” she said.

In the event that the closure continues as planned, Pitchford said EPA employees have also received conflicting messages on how the move-out would be executed.

When agency management first announced the closure, Pitchford said employees were told that they could continue working out of Las Vegas until Sept. 30. However, she said officials are now telling employees they need to stop working out of their laboratory, a leased space based out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas by Aug. 31.

“From one part of our management, we’ve been told we will be able to stay through Sept. 30 and another part of our management says that if we are out by the end of August, then we can telework from Las Vegas for that last month. And yet, the people making the statement, they don’t know whether people have permission to telework,” Pitchford said.

Another potential wrinkle in the relocation plans is whether Pruitt will continue to serve as the agency’s chief executive. Reports have circulated that President Trump has considered replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with Pruitt.

Meanwhile, a number of lawmakers have called on Pruitt to step down after ABC News reported he received a favorable deal on a Washington, D.C. condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist. Members of Congress have also expressed concerns over reports that Pruitt awarded bonuses to two political appointees through a provision in the Safe Drinking Act, after the White House rejected his request for the monetary awards.

“Our current administration has established a direction for the agency and is moving forward. So without him at the helm, it’s not clear what would happen next,” Pitchford said.

The EPA and staffers with House and Senate Appropriations Committees did not immediately provide comment for this story.