Transparency should be at top of EPA pick’s agenda

April 11, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

As President Obama’s pick to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in his second term prepares for a confirmation hearing this morning, there’s a lot of talk about what Gina McCarthy’s leadership would do regarding coal industry issues. As we mentioned yesterday, the group Appalachian Voices put out an early press release to try to head off expected complaints that EPA has been out to destroy the mining industry in the region:

While the data show some variations among coal-producing states, each of the top ten has had more mining jobs on average under the Obama administration than under the Bush administration. Nine of those states saw higher coal mining employment in 2012 than at any point during the Bush years.

Of course, that won’t stop coal-state senators from raising heck about the issue, as Erica Peterson reported Tuesday for WFPL:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s already been in the news a few times today, but here’s one more story from an environmental perspective: McConnell says President Obama’s nominee for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator will be detrimental to Kentucky’s coal industry.

But there’s one issue facing EPA that everyone who cares about the agency should be focused on today when the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works convenes to question McCarthy about her plans: Transparency.

I recently stepped down after serving more a decade as chairman of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Freedom of Information Task Force, a project formed in the wake of post-9/11 efforts at government secrecy in the name of counter-terrorism. I still serve as a member of the group. Yesterday, SEJ issued a statement about McCarthy’s confirmation, calling on lawmakers to press her on transparency issues. We said, in part:

The Obama administration has been anything but transparent in its dealings with reporters seeking information, interviews and clarification on a host of environmental, health and public lands issues. The EPA is one of the most closed, opaque agencies to the press. Members of the Society of Environmental Journalists – a group of 1,350 journalists who specialize in environmental coverage – face substantial hurdles getting their questions answered about air pollution, water quality, oil and gas operations and other issues.

Reporters who have covered the EPA for several decades say the agency was far more media-friendly and open prior to 2000. But media policies were substantially eroded during the administration of George W. Bush, and they’ve only gotten worse under President Obama.

SEJ has been trying to raise these issues, and work with EPA to improve the agency’s transparency, for years (see here, here and here, just for example), only to have our efforts ignored or worse. Check out this story from the Columbia Journalism Review, which quotes me explaining how we were treated by EPA:

Responding to President Obama’s Open Government Directive, which ordered executive departments and agencies to “take specific actions to implement the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration,” the EPA launched two websites to solicit public comments about how to fulfill that obligation. In March 2010, SEJ weighed in with a list of nine recommendations. Days later, during the group’s next conference call with the agency, Adora Andy, the EPA press secretary at the time, “scolded us for daring to comment publicly on their transparency policies,” says Ken Ward Jr., chairman of the group’s Freedom of Information Task Force, who participated in the call. Moreover, Andy threatened to break off the discussions between the EPA and the society (she never did, and the talks are ongoing). “I was shocked,” says Ward, a reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. “Here we were talking about concerns that journalists have about the lack of transparency. Then we dutifully submit public comments about the way we thought they should interact with the press, and EPA hammers us for it. To me, it showed that EPA just doesn’t get transparency.”

Unfortunately, Gina McCarthy has chosen in the past to defend EPA’s secrecy and its arrogance in ignoring the press, saying at a Union of Concerned Scientists event in 2012:

It is the job of the agency to make sure that personalities don’t get in the way of really discussing the science in a way that maintains the agency’s credibility. And that’s the balance that we try to bring to it, is to just make sure we are really providing factual information, not a layer of assessment that is based on someone’s personal interest or advocacy.

Even more unfortunate was that the Union of Concerned Scientists decided — apparently without talking to any actual journalists — to give EPA a great grade on its media policies in a recent scorecard. The UCS praised EPA for having a written policy that gives agency scientists the right to talk to the media.   Almost as an afterthought, the group said in its report:

However, based on testimony from agency scientists and journalists, concerns remain over how well this policy is implemented within the agency.

Indeed, the practice is much different from the policy, as SEJ explained in its statement this week:

Reporters are regularly required to submit written questions, even on the simplest daily stories. Interview requests are rarely granted. Delays are routine. Replies, when they do come, are from press officers, not scientists or policymakers. Answers to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act also are routinely delayed. The policy is counterproductive to accurate reporting and inimical to the American public’s right to know about important health and environmental issues.

Again last week, we saw EPA’s idea of transparency in action, when the agency allowed Exxon to not only control media access to information about a major oil spill in Arkansas, but put up with the company threatening to have a reporter who dared try to ask questions arrested.

Interestingly, this issue of EPA’s lack of transparency is something that a variety of constituencies should be able to come together on.  For example, some Republicans in Congress have been raising questions about former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s use of multiple e-mail addresses, a move that could have helped shield some public records from disclosure, and others in the GOP continue to probe whether the agency has been completely forthcoming about its discussions with environmental groups that brought lawsuits — and then quickly settled — aimed at forcing EPA to issue tougher regulations. Environmental groups, though, aren’t currently in the business of pushing for EPA transparency, focused as they are on defending many of the agency’s actions under Obama. And often, media folks covering environmental issues have portrayed any debate with Congress about EPA transparency as simply a political fight between the two sides of the aisle, without digging into the transparency issue — even to the point of suggesting that EPA can somehow how “internal communications with environmentalists.”

Lawmakers and the media have a chance to change all of this today … Senators from both parties could press McCarthy for a commitment to really improve EPA transparency. And the media could give the public good coverage of how McCarthy responds. As SEJ said in this week’s statement:

SEJ calls on the administration to streamline the handling of information and interview requests, and to allow more open and direct access to administrators, policymakers and the scientists whose research guides government decisions. We also urge EPA, Interior and Energy department administrators to hold regular news conferences, both in person and via conference call, to answer reporters’ questions on all topics.

As journalists, we are working on behalf of our readers, viewers and listeners to produce timely, accurate and complete reporting on important environmental and health issues. The administration works for them, too. Shouldn’t it have the same goals?

It’s a question that the Senate, in its hearing today, should ask the EPA nominee.

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