Director seeks new home for water-testing center cut by UNCA

Dr. Steve Patch is not ready to call it quits on the Environmental Quality Institute. The director of the water-testing center, which was recently cut from UNC-Asheville, says he is working with other universities to try to get one of them to pick up the EQI.

Meanwhile, UNCA Provost Jane Fernandes says the controversial decision to boot the EQI and the Mossbauer Effect Data Center was made by her. Early in the spring semester, after the UNC General Administration issued a directive to review centers and institutions to determine their contribution to undergraduate studies, she asked each director to write a report explaining, she says, "why the university could not function without them."

"As a result of that process," Fernandes continues, "I decided that [the EQI] and the Mossbaur Effect Data Center were not integral to the education of undergraduate students."

Patch disagrees: In pursuing the mission of providing low-cost lead and copper testing, he argues, the centers conducted important research and provided a venue for student research and material for his class curriculum. The EQI has, he says, also used thousands in grant funding for scholarships and student salaries. "I believe that EQI's record of contributing to UNCA's mission compares quite favorably to the centers that have not been cut," Patch says.

The EQI sustains itself on grant funding, and Patch thinks the impetus of the decision was the $280,000 the university would save by not renovating the lab space. Rhodes Hall, which houses the lab, is scheduled for a $9 million refurbishment, and UNCA officials are planning to convert the lab into classroom space.

Passed by the General Assembly and approved on Aug. 15 by the UNC Board of Governors, the university-system budget lists cuts for several centers within the UNC system, but there is no such mandate for UNC-Asheville. But UNCA is required to make $1.28 million in cuts, to be determined at the discretion of the administration. There is also a $237,214 reduction in state funding for the Rhodes Hall renovation.

"The only way I can rationalize it was that they didn't want to pay the remodeling cost," Patch says, adding that the current lab was working fine for the EQI, having been remodeled 10 years earlier.

Some EQI grant funds also go to UNCA — $44,000 last year — for facilities and administrative costs. But, according to UNCA Vice Chancellor of Finance and Campus Operations John Pierce, that sum, as determined by EQI's budget, should be more like $119,000. That means cutting the center amounts to administrative savings, he says.

Meanwhile, Patch has been discussing a new future for the EQI and approaching other area campuses, which at this point he won't name. He is hoping for an affirmative by the end of August. "We have to move fairly quickly because our grantors are saying, 'You have to let us know if we need to renew our grants or not,'" he says.

Fernandes says she hopes EQI finds a new home. "We would be happy to work with any site in every way possible to make a smooth transition so that the work of EQI can continue," she says. That includes holding recent meetings to determine how to free up the thousands of dollars of EQI equipment that was paid for by grants but is now property of the UNC system.

"There are some technicalities that we have to work out," she says.

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7 thoughts on “Director seeks new home for water-testing center cut by UNCA

  1. Jenny75

    It would be interesting to have someone from mountain xpress ask Dr. Patch who his “grantors” are that want to “renew”. From my understanding, most are cities or counties who send water samples to EQI and then EQI sends them a report with the results. This can hardly be classified as “research” Instead, it seems EQI has found a way to use state money to run a testing lab (for profit, based on the equipment they have purchased and the money they seem to have stored up).

  2. A Concerned Student

    Given your current understanding of the purpose of the EQI, you should be very interested in the grantors. I am a previous student employee of the lab, and in my few years of working with director Steve Patch, I have been humbled and deeply impressed by his dedication to environmental quality.

    It is true that one great service of the EQI is affordable water testing services. However, the roles of the lab hardly stop here. The VWIN (volunteer water information network) has been collecting water quality information of public water ways for years and using it to monitor stream health. EQI works with Green Peace and the Sierra Club to test mercury levels of concerned citizens, and give advice on keeping contamination low. The LPPP (lead poisoning and prevention program) provided affordable lead testing for homes with small children, who could be adversly affected by lead exposure.

    I invite readers to visit the EQI’s website:
    http://orgs.unca.edu/EQI/index.html
    and explore the “What We Do” section to learn of all the wonderful services this dedicated program provided for the local and national community.

  3. Marilyn Westphal

    You want to know who some of the grantors are? Then you need to include the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, MSD, Haywood Waterways Association, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners, the Pacolet Area Conservancy, Toe River Valley Watch, the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River, the Watauga River Conservation Partners, the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition, the Town of Lake Lure, the Lake James Environmental Association, the Upper Broad River Watershed Protection Committee, the Friends of Lake Glenville, NCSU, and even UNCA itself. Do you think these non-profit groups have enough money to take their samples to a commercial lab? And do you think that a commercial lab will analyze the data and tell these non-scientists what it all means? Think again!
    An Insider

  4. Jenny75

    First of all, I clearly don’t know everything about EQI, and no, I don’t think these non-profit groups have the money to pay for the services and/or expertise of private labs. What you’re saying though supports my main point: EQI is a testing lab that is able to undercut private testing labs. This MUST be because the state is providing some sort of support (financial, space, administrative). If EQI really “pulls its own weight” as the director suggests, and doesn’t use any state support, then why not exist as an independent non-profit elsewhere in town? Seems like a logical solution to me.

    Seems the administration feels there is some cost that will be saved by closing EQI. Maybe it is just an opportunity cost…..whatever physical space EQI takes up, or administrative oversight, comes at the expense of another classroom, lab, etc. that could (and will now) exist in its space. It’s nothing against EQI, as they seem to produce meaningful results to the community. It’s just not clear why EQI is a part of UNCA.

  5. ByStander

    Perhaps a more helpful approach by the UNCA administration, one more considerate of the faculty, students and community, and more supportive of the good work they were doing, would have been to have worked with the the institutes concerned (EQI, MEDC?) to find new homes for them BEFORE announcing their discontinuation.

    Imagine a press release that read, “UNC Asheville announced today that it has facilitated the transfer of two of its important research centers to new homes, allowing them to continue important scientific services for the public even as the university is mandated to trim back its budget by UNC general administration.”

  6. Ramon

    Trust me that you should listen to Marilyn W above…she knows what she is talking about as an insider. This agency has worked closely with various non-profit agencies around WNC but also close in to Asheville and plenty of watersheds you might walk around routinely that are more polluted than you might imagine. Keep up the good work and best wishes as they seek a new home.

  7. Eddie B

    I for one think that EQI does a great service to us in testing our watersheds and keeping us posted on pollution levels.

    But I don’t think EQI belongs at UNCA. I hope that other labs in the region will take on this project.

    Be aware that money will be an issue because the water testing project does not pay for itself. Perhaps the county Health Departments are the place to take the lead on this.

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