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“S&T Directorate Has Severely Crippled a National Asset”

Posted on by Jesse Lee

From the Science Committee:

Subcommittee Investigates How DHS Nearly Destroyed One of Its Vital Homeland Security Labs

(Washington, DC) The Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology today convened a hearing on the state of one of the nation's three homeland security laboratories — the Environmental Measurements Laboratory (EML) in Manhattan. In 2003 the lab was transferred from the Department of Energy to DHS's Science & Technology Directorate.

But since then, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken this once valuable national asset and denigrated it — terminating programs of priceless value to both the nation's first responders and U.S. national security community, halting others and drafting plans to close the lab completely.

“Rather than expanding on the lab's key strengths and skills, the S&T Directorate has severely crippled a national asset.” said Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC). “The lab should have been playing a critical role in national security efforts over the past four years.”

Situated in the heart of Manhattan, just blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood, the EML has developed specialized equipment, protocols and techniques to locate, identify and analyze radioactive isotopes. The lab — which has undergone several name changes since it was first established in 1947 as the Medical Division of the Atomic Energy Agency — moved into its current location in downtown Manhattan in 1957.

Rather than providing the lab with clear guidance, direction and leadership the DHS S&T Directorate simply left the lab to flounder, while they dismissed the lab's new proposals and closed down its existing programs forcing one-third of the staff to leave or retire.

Documents provided to the committee by the Department of Homeland Security show a troubling pattern in which the S&T Directorate had been less than candid with both EML employees and members of Congress about their potential plans to close the EML.

Noted for its past efforts in evaluating the impact of environmental contamination from nuclear weapons fallout and developing a global network of radiation sensors, the EML continued to play a key national security role following the 9/11 attacks. Yet, today some of its most important programs have been terminated, including a global radiation sensor network that could have played a key role in gathering critical intelligence on the North Korean nuclear test in October 2006.

Projects it initiated with local first responders in New York City, including a network of roof-top radiation sensors, have been halted. Others have been started, stopped and then transferred. Today, the lab is in the final stages of decommissioning its six chemistry labs that were critical for the continuation of its radiochemistry quality assurance program praised by both state and federal participants as directly contributing to homeland security efforts.

All seemingly due to the fact that no one in the S&T Directorate seemed to realize or value the inherent worth of the EML's six decades of radiation monitoring related research and development. Instead, DHS seemed intent on closing down the lab one program at a time. The agency never seemed to fully utilize or appreciate the capabilities of the EML — which has often been labeled as the “gold standard” in radiation measurements.

“The lab was given zero guidance or direction on what the Department of Homeland Security expected from it,” Chairman Miller added.

The current state of the laboratory seems to be largely due to a stunning degree of failure of imagination, direction and leadership on the part of S&T managers at DHS.

Admiral Cohen, the Under Secretary for Science & Technology at DHS, told the Subcommittee today that he has no plans to close EML. He intends to maintain the lab's presence in New York City and to re-emphasize the lab's core mission towards the Testing & Evaluation (T&E) of equipment — a move that subcommittee Members welcomed, but plan to approach warily.

For more on the hearing, click here >>

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