WASHINGTON U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials on Tuesday denied reports the agency will close the office in Chicago that oversees regional environmental protection efforts including the Flint, Michigan drinking water clean-up and Great Lakes restoration.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers representing the Midwestern states around the Great Lakes raised concerns over the past two days after a report by the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper that the EPA was considering closing its Region 5 office.
"These stories are not true, are pure speculation, and undermine our ability to communicate with the public the real information we have," Bob Kaplan, acting regional administrator, wrote in a memo sent to staff on Monday.
There have been discussions about eliminating "excess office space" to save money, but no talk of shutting the office, Kaplan said in the memo, a copy of which Reuters obtained. "Anyone stating anything to the contrary is spreading false information."
The reports come during a tense period for the agency. Trump administration's proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 would cut EPA funding 31 percent, the biggest planned cut for any federal agency. Career EPA employees have raised concerns about proposed staff cuts and plans to undo some environmental protection regulations under the leadership of new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
"If you close our office, the ability to protect the Great Lakes would be in danger. The work we do here is too important to cut," said Michael Mikulka, Chicago chapter president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union for federal employees.
The EPA Region 5 office oversees Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.
Reports of the closure alarmed both Republican and Democratic lawmakers from around the region, which relies on the EPA to carry out work state and municipal governments cannot handle alone.
"If true, this report is shocking," said U.S. Representative Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan. "Whatever the deficiencies of the Region 5 office, the folks there do play a critical role in protecting human health and the environment."
Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin took to Twitter to flag concerns.
"Such an action would be irresponsible & demonstrate clear disregard for the health and safety of millions of residents of Great Lakes region,” he wrote.
Pruitt will be in the region on Wednesday to visit a lead contaminated housing complex in East Chicago, Indiana, just 30 minutes south of Chicago.
(Reporting By Valerie Volcovici; additional reporting by Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago, Editing by Ben Klayman and David Gregorio)