SEJournal Online is the digital news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Learn more about SEJournal Online, including submission, subscription and advertising information.
WatchDog: Media Object as EPA Bars Reporters from Drinking Water ‘Summit’
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s antagonism toward news media is helping obscure its inaction on a drinking water contaminant of wide public concern. Coming months will show whether the public’s right to know and the public’s right to nontoxic water will suffer further.
The latest example: An EPA security guard shoved AP reporter (may require subscription) Ellen Knickmeyer out of the agency’s headquarters building in Washington on May 22 — emphasizing how little EPA wanted legitimate media coverage of its actions affecting the public.
The Society of Environmental Journalists has written EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt again, objecting to the most recent incident as an improper restriction on press access.
SEJ’s protest was echoed by other journalism groups, including the National Association of Science Writers, the National Press Club and the Journalism & Women Symposium.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker listed it as a “physical attack” and “denial of access” and wrote a pretty thorough article about what happened.
The May 22 incident was part of a larger flap over media access to information and “public” meetings. Left unanswered was the question of why EPA is going to such lengths to deflect public scrutiny.
Toxic chemicals at heart of dispute
A class of fluorinated chemicals called PFASs has been widely found in drinking water sources. They seep into groundwater from many sources, ranging from firefighting foam to nonstick coatings, and have been implicated in harm to human health.
EPA has yet to regulate them — a thorny problem for a category that contains hundreds of chemicals. The agency held a widely touted “summit” meeting on PFASs May 22-23.
The question of PFASs in water has generated fear, anger and misunderstanding for years — starting well before PFOA (a member of the PFAS family) was detected in residential wells in North Bennington, Vt., in 2016.
Concerns about PFOA in public water sparked a class action suit in the Ohio River Valley as early as 2005. More recently, the nonprofit advocacy group that maintains one of the best drinking water databases, the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, estimated that up to 110 million Americans could have PFAS-contaminated drinking water.
Lack of openness undermines public
confidence that agencies like EPA
are acting in the public interest.
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or SDWA, the EPA can mandate regulation of substances in public drinking water by setting a “maximum contaminant level,” or MCL. Not every known contaminant of drinking water is regulated by MCL. EPA monitors and warns of some contaminants long before it regulates them. Setting an MCL requires scientific information about what levels of contamination cause what health effects.
The SDWA also leaves largely to the states the job of enforcing MCLs on local drinking water utilities. There is no national MCL for PFAS chemicals.
The decision about whether and how to regulate PFASs in drinking water is complicated by several factors.
One is the number of PFAS chemicals that cause health concern. Another is the sometimes low concentrations of PFASs already in both water and the human body.
Yet another is the financial challenge of bringing people into public water systems when their private wells get contaminated. Still another is that some federal facilities (such as military airports) are historical PFAS polluters.
And then there is the touchy political problem of power-balance (or blame-sharing) among federal, state and local authorities (code word: “federalism”).
Accurate, fair, complete, understandable and timely information is critical to the public understanding and consensus that must underlie any effective government action on environmental health challenges like PFASs.
This is where journalism can help.
What EPA and the states can and should do — and whether they are doing it — is a matter of legitimate public concern. Mandatory public information is written into the SDWA law itself. And public scrutiny of government is important in realms far beyond drinking water.
Lack of openness undermines public confidence that agencies like EPA are acting in the public interest.
The PFAS summit fiasco
The May 22-23 EPA summit was attended mostly by high-level federal (especially EPA) and state officials and chemical industry reps … by invitation. Although at least one environmental health advocate was included, people from affected communities were largely shut out.
"[S]elective barring of news organizations …
from covering today's meeting is alarming
and a direct threat to the public's right to know
about what is happening inside their government"
— AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee
When reporters from the AP, CNN and E&E News showed up the morning of May 22 to cover the meeting, they were not admitted to the building. All three outlets, which routinely cover EPA and other government news for huge or influential national audiences, were told they were not invited.
When the barred AP reporter, Ellen Knickmeyer, asked to speak to a representative of EPA’s public affairs office, a security guard laid hands on her and shoved her out of the building. News of this quickly spread on Twitter and other media.
Other media outlets were let in, by invitation, including The Hill, Wall Street Journal, Politico and CBS News. Selective denial of access to news media whose coverage is critical has been a hallmark of the Trump administration generally and EPA in particular.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox claimed that there was not room for more than 10 reporters, even though those in the room reported empty media seats.
After the immediate outcry and rush of coverage, EPA announced that reporters would be let into the afternoon session. But once several media outlets had run the story that EPA had relented, EPA barred access to the next day’s session to all news media.
"The Environmental Protection Agency's selective barring of news organizations, including the AP, from covering today's meeting is alarming and a direct threat to the public's right to know about what is happening inside their government," said AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee.
“It beggars understanding that the EPA would prevent any reporters from covering a topic of such intense nationwide interest and concern,” SEJ President Bobby Magill wrote Pruitt May 23. “But these are just the latest additions to your pattern of antagonism toward the press, and disregard for the public’s right to know what EPA is or is not doing to protect their health and the environment.”
Lost in the uproar for the most part was information about what was — or wasn’t — said and done at the meeting. A few environmental journalism pros, like E&E News’ Corbin Hiar, managed to write some of what happened from interviews, second-hand reports and a livestream, and to file timely stories despite being shut out of the room for much of the time.
According to reporting, EPA’s Pruitt used the meeting to declare PFASs a “priority.” He announced the agency’s intention to take four specific steps by certain deadlines: considering setting an MCL, establishing Superfund-like cleanup standards for contaminated sites, declaring PFASs “hazardous substances” (triggering certain legal liability for polluters) and developing toxicity standards for two related chemicals, GenX and PFBS.
But Pruitt did not take questions. Exact details of the “steps” remained to be decided and disclosed in the future. And the sharpest of the questions could have come from reporters who were not in the room, but had wanted to be and had been denied access.
Were open meetings laws violated?
Secretive and unaccountable government is not a new problem. Congress in past decades has passed laws requiring public meetings to be open to the public. Now some are asking if Pruitt violated them.
The Federal Advisory Committee Act, originally passed in 1972, covers meetings and information related to bodies meant to advise the government — particularly those including people who are not government employees. Meetings are required to be open to the public, and reports on their proceedings must be available to the public.
The Government in the Sunshine Act (sometimes called the “Sunshine Act”), passed in 1976, covers meetings of federal government agencies — with specified exemptions for reasons like national security. It requires that every part of such meetings be open to the public, and that adequate advance notice be given to the public.
|Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), at right, speaking to local media at an Oct. 25, 2016, event in Flint. Kildee has asked for investigation into whether EPA violated the law by closing a recent drinking water summit to journalists. Photo: Michigan Municipal League|
In its letter of protest to Pruitt, SEJ raised the issue of whether these laws had been violated, sending a copy to EPA’s Inspector General Arthur Elkins, whose job it is to investigate such matters.
Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Flint, Mich., wrote Elkins on May 24, asking him to investigate whether EPA had violated any laws by closing the meeting to journalists and the public.
Not only does Kildee’s district have lead-in-water problems, but his state is troubled by findings of PFASs in people’s water. Michigan plans to test some 1,380 water systems and 460 schools for PFASs, and is lobbying for nationwide PFAS standards.
Kildee and his staff were not invited to the May 22-23 EPA meeting.
A spokesperson for the EPA inspector general’s office told the WatchDog that it had not made a decision yet on whether to pursue the matter.
Trump administration hides report on PFAS dangers
Apart from the difficulties of regulating them, the actual toxicity of PFASs and related fluorinated compounds is a matter of intense public interest. These chemicals are not only in people’s water — they are in people’s bodies.
Environmental journalists have for decades worked to illuminate and explain knotty and contentious toxicology questions, on a host of chemicals other than PFASs. This is what they do.
The best environmental journalists understand, and try to explain, what is certain and what is uncertain about the health effects of chemicals to which people are exposed. And they are used to efforts — by chemical companies, manufacturers and the agencies that should be regulating them — to conceal and distort the truth about their potential harm.
So it was news when Politico reporter Annie Snider broke the story May 14 that EPA and the White House had moved to quash a science study by another federal agency finding that PFASs were way more toxic than was generally believed.
Secrecy, in this context, is political.
And it can poison people.
The study was by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, which is an arm of the Centers for Disease Control within the Department of Health and Human Services.
ATSDR had completed a “toxicological profile” report on two chemical types in the PFAS family, PFOA and PFOS. These chemicals, used in nonstick coatings and firefighting foams, have been suspected of causing thyroid defects, pregnancy problems and certain cancers, even at low exposures.
The draft ATSDR study reportedly found the chemicals were risky at levels one-sixth of the 70 parts per billion “advisory” level publicized by EPA — at least for sensitive populations like infants and breastfeeding mothers.
Snider’s story was based on a trove of EPA emails unearthed via a Freedom of Information Act request by a nonprofit advocacy group, the Union of Concerned Scientists. Email traffic between officials at EPA and the White House Office of Management and Budget revealed an effort by EPA and the White House to keep the ATSDR report from being publicly released.
One unidentified White House official wrote of trying to stifle the ATSDR report because it would present a “public relations nightmare.” OMB has considerable authority to censor federal reports under the guise of interagency review. The emails showed top EPA officials objecting to the report’s publication.
Other toxicological studies find harmful health effects
Cleanups and lawsuits related to PFASs have already cost the chemical industry hundreds of millions of dollars. Lowering the safety threshold could cost them billions more. It would also cost big bucks for cleanup of the hundreds of polluted Defense Department sites.
It is important to remember that many of the people at EPA who now decide these issues have worked for the chemical industry (may require subscription). And the Union of Concerned Scientists is raising the question of whether EPA colluded with the chemical industry (may require subscription) in suppressing the report.
Various Congressional Democrats have publicly demanded that the study be released immediately. ATSDR has not yet released it, and it has not yet leaked to a media outlet.
Scientists and regulators already know the information in the ATSDR report. The reasons for not releasing it are political.
There are other toxicological studies out there that suggest harmful health effects well below the EPA “advisory” level. New Jersey state scientists have recommended enforceable MCLs of 13 parts per billion for PFNA and 14 ppb for PFOA — well below (may require subscription) EPA’s 70 ppb advisory level.
But the implications, politically, economically and healthwise, are big. According to EWG, EPA’s survey of public drinking water systems has collected a lot of data about PFAS contamination of drinking water that has not been released.
EPA has released numbers only for the drinking-water systems testing above its advisory level. If it counted the unreleased data from systems below that threshold, that would put the total number of Americans drinking PFAS-contaminated water up to around 110 million.
Secrecy, in this context, is political. And it can poison people.
You can see the instinct for secrecy in the agenda in the upcoming Aug. 28-30 annual meeting of the Environmental Council of States, or ECOS. Some sessions are open and others are closed. The Aug. 29 state-EPA session on PFAS is closed.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 23. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.