An e-mail written by Environmental Quality Institute Director Steve Patch challenges several assertions made by the UNC-Asheville administration regarding the closing of the on-campus water-quality-analysis center. In a July 13 statement, the university announced the closing, citing the need to cut its budget. Patch contests numbers supplied by the university as well as the claim that the center does not satisfy the school’s core mission.
See the full text of that e-mail message below.
Note: In the Xpress story referenced below, we stated that the $350,000 UNC-Asheville claimed to be saving by closing the Environmental Quality Institute would be on a per-year basis. In fact, communications from UNCA officials did not indicate those were annual savings.
— staff writer Brian Postelle
Response to Provost Fernandes’ Statements in “Troubled Waters”
As Director of the Environmental Quality Institute (EQI), I was very disappointed that UNCA decided to close EQI. I disagree with that decision but I understand that difficult decisions must be made in times of financial distress. However, I was dismayed to read comments from Provost Fernandes in the article “Troubled Waters” in the August 12-18, 2009 Mountain Xpress, that implied that EQI has been subsidized with state funds and that educating students is not central to our mission. The reality is that EQI has always been completely self sufficient financially and has always made a valuable contribution to the university’s core mission of educating undergraduate students.
I strongly disagree with the statements concerning the supposed “savings” from closing the Environmental Quality Institute (EQI). It is stated that “state funding is involved in the center’s operations, including provision of infrastructure, lab space, overhead costs, administrative oversight and the salary of the faculty member who directs the center on a half-time basis.” First, EQI has recently been paying the university an average of $44,000 per year for its infrastructure, space, overhead and oversight costs. Second, the cost of teaching the one class of release time per semester for me to act as the center’s director has always been paid for from EQI grant funds, not state funds. In EQI’s 20-year existence, the university has only spent about $100,000 remodeling our space. The university is now planning to remodel all of Rhoades Hall, which is where we were located, at an estimated total cost of $9 million. That project would have required EQI to move into a remodeled laboratory in Rhoades Hall despite the fact that we were content to remain in our old space in the building. The UNCA facilities staff has told us that the extra cost for remodeling a laboratory for EQI compared to remodeling it for another purpose would be a one-time cost of $280,000. I do not know the basis for the statement that closing EQI “will save the university $350,000 per year.” I can only assume that it is an exaggerated estimate of a one-time cost that was incorrectly understood to be a yearly cost. While the university will clearly not be saving that amount from closing EQI, it will obtain a windfall by taking control of EQI’s reserves worth about $170,000, our cutting-edge scientific instrumentation, and our $50,000 endowment fund in addition that we have built up over the years to support scholarships for our research students. In summary, the university has been profiting financially from EQI for years. Instead of investing that profit in remodeling a laboratory for EQI, the UNCA administration has decided to close EQI.
I also disagree with the statement that “UNCA’s core mission of educating undergraduate students was not integral to the work of either center”. In the past 5 years, 14 EQI students have earned distinction as undergraduate researchers. Almost all of our recent EQI graduates have had their research published in peer-reviewed journals or are in the process of getting it published, which attests to the quality of the research experience we have been providing our students. In the past five years we have spent over $150,000 of money generated by grant funds on student scholarships and salaries. The experiences that students receive from working in our laboratory and making presentations to national audiences make them more competitive for employment and graduate school positions. In addition to receiving academic credit, interns in our Lead Poisoning Prevention Program get hands-on job training from working in the community. Additionally, use of the EQI laboratory was going to play a central role in the freshman colloquium course I am teaching this fall titled “Assessing Environmental Toxins.” I believe that EQI’s record of contributing to UNCA’s mission compares quite favorably to the four centers that have not been cut by the UNCA administration.
The article did a good job of explaining the significance of the Volunteer Water Information Network and its research on stream water quality but did not discuss the role EQI has played in reducing the national exposure to common environmental toxins. A few examples follow.
Our research collaboration with Clean Water for North Carolina on lead in drinking water played a critical role in the EPA negotiation of the phase-out of lead in water pumps, reduction of lead content in kitchen faucets, and in the composition of the 1993 Lead and Copper Rule, which has dramatically decreased lead concentrations for US municipal water users. For example, since that Lead and Copper rule was passed, 90’th percentile lead concentration for residents on municipal water in Asheville has decreased from about 15 ppb to less than 3 ppb and in Hendersonville it has decreased from about 40 ppb to less than 3 ppb. Our research on exposure to arsenic from chromated-copper-arsenate (CCA) lumber was used by the EPA to negotiate a ban on CCA for residential use in 2004. To our knowledge, we published the first paper on lead in children’s jewelry in 2005, which helped guide the US Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) to create strict rules for lead content in children’s products in 2008. Our research on mercury in hair, which was featured on CNN, has helped to inform pregnant women about the danger of eating too many servings of fish that are high in mercury as well as informing all citizens about one of the consequences of our energy choices. In recent studies to be published in the Journal of Environmental Health and in Science of the Total Environment, our student researchers have found that arsenic from CCA-decks can be tracked into homes and that there is a potential for toddlers playing inside the house, especially near the entryway, to be exposed to that arsenic.
Unfortunately, due to the closing of EQI, we will not be able to follow up on that potentially important line of research at UNCA. More locally, EQI’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has assisted numerous families in reducing the exposure of their children to lead around the home and has been the driving force behind dramatically increased blood lead testing rates in Buncombe and Henderson Counties.
In closing, I would like to thank all of the UNCA students, faculty, and staff and all of the funders, collaborators, and volunteers that we have had the pleasure of working with over the years. Working together we have accomplished some great things.
Director of the Environmental Quality Institute