Top public affairs staffers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday told journalists the agency is taking actions to be more open.
The Society of Environmental Journalists invited EPA representatives to field questions from journalists. The session was planned as EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who was sworn in Wednesday, prepared to take office.
SEJ is a 1,500-member nonprofit, nonpartisan professional organization based in Washington, D.C. The international organization formed 31 years ago. (Note: The author of this story is a former SEJ president.)
EPA Press Secretary Nick Conger and Lindsay Hamilton, associate administrator in the public affairs office, met virtually with SEJ members during Sunshine Week, an observance of press freedom and freedom of speech.
The session followed several years of highly adversarial relationships among reporters and EPA representatives, but issues with access and transparency worsened before President Trump took office, SEJ representatives noted.
Open meetings and accessible records are not just important to journalists. Often citizens and lawyers involved in issues file freedom of information requests with the federal government seeking information that was denied.
For example, the fight about “ag gag” laws have landed in court. These laws, in Iowa and elsewhere, sought to prevent undercover surveillance by employees seeking to expose animal abuse at livestock confinements. And shortly before he left office, President Trump tried to block access to records regarding how environmental regulations affect at-risk species.
The fights go back years. In 2010, SEJ objected to Coast Guard actions denying access to reporters trying to document the damage done by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And EPA denied access to early water sampling results after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, preventing citizens from assessing the danger of wading through chemicals at their flooded homes.
Hamilton said President Biden is committed to more openness.
“Our goal is to have a really positive and productive and transparent working relationship with the media,” Hamilton said. “… We are committed to sharing accurate, timely information to the best of our ability.”
Some days will be smoother than others, Hamilton said. “Obviously, I think there will always be a push and pull between media relations officers and the press, because you know it is your job to hold us accountable and to always ask for more.”
EPA staffers have discussed doing a better job of explaining why an interview can’t be granted or information provided on deadline, when that is the case, Hamilton added.
SEJ members have for years criticized EPA, through administrations of both major parties, for failing to adequately to respond to inquiries, if there was any response. Often, agency scientists either didn’t respond or weren’t allowed to speak directly to reporters. Phone calls and emails to public affairs staff members sometimes weren’t returned.
For years, EPA published on its website a directory of public affairs workers and their contact information, both for the headquarters and for the regional offices. In recent months, that disappeared.
Hamilton told SEJ members in a virtual meeting Thursday that the list of contacts will reappear on EPA’s website Monday. She said EPA welcomes direct contacts with scientists, though they are asked to “coordinate” with the press office. That, Hamilton said, is not to stymie reporters but rather to make sure information the reporter needs is provided. Sometimes, that might take multiple stops in EPA, she said.
“There are times where it might be that the question that you’re asking doesn’t belong simply to one person or there are a couple of experts who need to weigh in on something, and so every request is individual,” Hamilton said.
Journalists’ goal: Unfettered access
Tim Wheeler, associate editor and senior writer at Bay Journal, and chairman of SEJ’s Freedom of Information Task Force, noted that reporters often are calling the scientist they need to interview. What they want is unfettered access to the scientists and other experts, Wheeler said. He acknowledged that public affairs workers can be helpful when a reporter still is trying to find the right sources.
Relations might have hit a new low during the Trump administration, but the central complaints were similar across the past several administrations, reporters noted.
Those same beefs were laid out in a Columbia Journalism Review story when Gina McCarthy was confirmed to be President Obama’s EPA administrator. McCarthy now is President Biden’s top adviser on climate issues.
Return to ‘healthy flow of information?’
In the letter to Haaland, Babits noted that for years, reporters enjoyed a “healthy flow of information” from Interior. However, in the past four years, “the Interior press operation often echoed President Trump’s antagonism against the media as an ‘enemy.’ It acted to restrict journalists’ access to information and agency scientists, politicizing to an unprecedented degree what the public has a right to know about the management on its behalf of public lands and resources.”
On behalf of SE, Babits asked Haaland to make the agency more open and to “restore civility, professionalism, openness and truthfulness.” The journalism organization also asked Interior to stop requiring prior approval of political appointees for scientists to speak with reporters.
SEJ staff members have invited Interior officials to meet with SEJ members in a session similar to Thursday’s EPA-SEJ meeting.
Babits made similar comments in the letter to Regan, noting a “poor” relationship among reporters and EPA representatives during the Trump administration. “We are hoping you may help change things for the better,” Babits wrote.
While SEJ previously featured EPA brass and top staffers at annual conferences around the country, President George W. Bush was in office the last time that happened. Babits asked Hamilton if she could end that drought when SEJ’s next in-person annual conference happens in Houston in 2022. (A session planned for Boise State University in June has been canceled due to coronavirus concern.)
Hamilton said she would welcome a formal invitation, and plans to make the request.
Conger said the sheer size of EPA can sometimes complicate meeting journalists’ deadline for comments. The issues with EPA sometimes have extended to projects extending over months.
“We are a very large and somewhat clunky organization spread across 10 regions, and it is sometimes challenging to get thorough responses,” Conger said. “It is something we are taking very seriously and we are taking action on as we speak.”