Uncertain future for the EPA Houston lab assisting with Hurricane Harvey response

It’s been nearly three weeks since Hurricane Harvey slammed into south Texas, and serious environmental and public health concerns remain for the region: Chemical plants have reported leaks and damage, toxic Superfund sites — areas with hazardous substances and pollutants that the EPA determines require cleanup — and city and state officials have warned that destructive flood waters could contain harmful bacteria and other contaminants.

The cleanup will take years, according to experts.

Enter the Environmental Protection Agency‘s Region 6 laboratory in Houston that’s been assisting with the Harvey response — and who’s future is up in the air, after employees were told four months ago that the government will not renew the 41,000-square-foot space’s lease when it expires in 2020.

The EPA last April publicly announced that as a part of an agency-wide effort to consolidate work space and limit rent costs, it would not renew the laboratory’s building lease.

An EPA spokesperson insisted to ABC News that the agency is searching for a new space to move the roughly 50-person team, and that it does not plan to halt the work or function of the facility.

However, multiple sources from the local EPA office in Dallas, as well as the Houston laboratory told ABC News that during meetings with staff in April and June, agency officials did little to reassure the scientists in that the laboratory — which serves five states — would even remain in the state.

“It has been very demoralizing,” Mark Ford, an attorney at the EPA’s office in Dallas and vice president of the American Federation of Government Employee (AFGE) Local 1003, the union representing federal employees, told ABC News. He recounted the anxiety employees from Houston had expressed to his team. “‘What should I do? Should I sell my house? Should I put in for a transfer? What about my children in terms of their education here in Houston?'” said Ford, rattling off the questions staff asked.

Clovis Steib, the president of AEFG Local 1003, echoed Ford’s sentiments, telling ABC News, “People don’t feel valued, the morale has suffered. These people were living under this shadow knowing that they basically got a diagnosis that they have two years on their professional career. There are obligations wherein [the agency] has to offer you a job, but they don’t have to offer it in your area.”

According to Ford, Steib and a scientist from the Houston lab who spoke on the condition of anonymity, agency…

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