SEJ Asks "Who's in Charge?" at EPA

March 21, 2014

It was a crisis. Charleston, West Virginia, residents had just been told not to drink city water because of a chemical spill upstream of its intake. It would seem routine to call the US EPA and ask for information or comment — and that's just what prize-winning Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. did. He waited a week for EPA to get back to him on the record.

"Sadly, such communication delays by EPA are not limited to crises," wrote WatchDog editor Joseph A. Davis and SEJ Exec. Director Beth Parke weeks later. "Journalists frequently report waiting for days and in some cases weeks to get EPA to respond to routine requests for information or interviews."

EPA staff tell environmental reporters on background that one of the reasons for delay is that press officers — before answering inquiries — have to go up the chain of command to the political appointees who actually tell them what to say. And that takes time.

Time. It's something journalists never have quite enough of. The old 24-hour news cycle has been replaced by a one-hour news cycle, thanks to the internet. Journalists are on deadline even when there is no crisis, and the urgency is even greater when life-and-death news is breaking. So delay of an hour — much less a week — may equal "no comment" or kill the story.

During the week when Ken Ward Jr. was waiting for the EPA to find enough sense of urgency to talk to him, the story did not go away. Of course, that was partly because the licorice taste of the contaminant MCHM in Charleston's drinking water did not go away. But Ward, a principal source of information for the 300,000 people without safe water, kept reporting, largely without EPA's help. Other media outlets had similar problems. If EPA's public affairs strategy was to shut down the story, control the message, or keep its head down politically, that strategy failed. If you tuned in to NPR that week, you could hear them interviewing Ward to find out what was really going on.

After the current administrator of EPA, Gina McCarthy, took office on July 19, 2013, journalists' hopes for improved openness at the agency rose. When asked how she would address press-access issues, McCarthy said: "We'll talk." "We want to be as transparent as we can," she has said.

Those mandates, if that's what they are, have not been carried out by the press office.

EPA's response to the crisis contrasts somewhat with that of the Centers for Disease Control. Since EPA had not set any maximum contaminant level for MCHM (a fairly rare chemical and one of thousands with no MCL), the burden fell on the CDC to suggest to West Virginia authorities a concentration of MCHM in drinking water that might be safe, or at least not be dangerous. There was little actual research available. CDC came up with its best guess, trying to err on the side of safety, in a good-faith effort to deal with a crisis. When reporters started asking what CDC's recommendation was based on, CDC dodged the question and caught more flak for that. To its credit, CDC then started efforts to fully explain. It also responded non-defensively to a January letter from SEJ and the Society of Professional Journalists complaining about transparency. As a result, a constructive dialogue on crisis communication seems to have started.

The story, however, has not gone away — at least not in West Virginia, where some people still taste MCHM in their tapwater. Sadly, it is also true that the story never fully arrived with the national media — who have long since moved on to other crises.

There is much to write about the Charleston crisis that has yet to be written — including discussion of whether the Safe Drinking Water Act as enacted and implemented is doing the job of protecting people. It's easy enough to blame EPA, Congress, and the West Virginia authorities. But the media, too, bear responsibility for pushing to inform the public on this. A good summary was written January 20, 2014, by Eugene Robinson: "Washington Is Silent on W.Va.'s Chemical Spill."