Transparency Remains an Issue As McCarthy Takes EPA Helm

July 31, 2013

When it comes to transparency at EPA, what you see depends a lot on where you are sitting. But one thing seems likely: newly confirmed EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will be sitting in the hot seat.

House and Senate Republicans made a big deal over EPA "transparency" while McCarthy's nomination was being held up in the Senate. Then on July 9, 2013, the Senate Environment Committee's ranking minority member, David Vitter (R-LA), said he would drop his filibuster threat because EPA had agreed to some of his demands on transparency.

McCarthy was finally confirmed July 18, after a 130-day delay, and sworn in the next day. With that, the transparency questions may get more serious.

Senate Environment Republicans, led by Vitter, had deluged McCarthy with an unprecedented 1,100-odd written questions while her confirmation was pending. The GOPers complained about an unofficial e-mail address used by her predecessor, Lisa P. Jackson — despite the fact that McCarthy herself did not use an unofficial e-mail address, and the fact that many prior EPA chiefs under both parties had used them.

Republicans had also complained that, in responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, EPA had waived fees more often for liberal groups than for conservative groups. But an investigative analysis published July 21 by Politico reporter Erica Martinson found that the Republican case had "holes" and was substantially overstated.

During the nomination holdup, Environment Committee Republicans also confronted EPA with five transparency demands. These five issues morphed somewhat, but Vitter cited EPA's eventual agreement to them when he announced he would not filibuster McCarthy's nomination. They involved:

  1. Retraining of EPA's entire workforce in FOIA procedures.
  2. Reanalysis of data on health benefits of air regulations without identifying individual subjects.
  3. Reanalysis of economic impacts of air regulations.
  4. Web publication of Notices of Intent to Sue and Petitions for Rulemaking.
  5. EPA compliance with Congressional requests for documents.

While Vitter referred to "productive conversations" and "steps forward," the WatchDog was unable to find any package of written commitments from EPA.

The victories Vitter claimed may in some cases be things EPA was already doing, had already done, or was required by law or courts to do.

The Society of Environmental Journalists has been urging EPA toward greater transparency for years — well before the Senate Republicans' discovery of the issue. It must be noted that Gina McCarthy is one of the very few high EPA officials to sit down with SEJ members at a plenary session of its Annual Conference and answer any questions from members. But SEJ has also expressed concern over McCarthy's justification of EPA press office practices that put press officers between EPA scientists and officials and the reporters who want to interview them.

That is likely to become a key issue as McCarthy settles in and establishes her own public affairs style in coming months.