EPA's Unfinished Agenda

February 9, 2022
The Society of Environmental Journalists urged the White House not to let public information officers restrict scientist-journalist communication. Above, EPA Administrator Michael Regan in Houston, Texas, last November. Photo: U.S. EPA. Click to enlarge.

WatchDog Opinion: EPA’s Unfinished Agenda

By Joseph A. Davis

It’s not too late for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to embrace transparency. If they do it soon, it would be good PR and might even help in the mid-term elections. Plus, it would inform the American voters about health dangers and what the EPA is doing about them.

But the agency hasn’t done it yet.

Yet two things give WatchDog reason for hope: First, a report detailing all the violations of the EPA scientific integrity by political appointees, and second, an EPA-specific revised scientific integrity policy that lets journalists talk to scientists unhindered and uncensored.


During his first week in office, President Biden

issued a memo aimed at strengthening

scientific integrity at federal agencies.


During his first week in office, President Biden issued a memo aimed at strengthening scientific integrity at federal agencies. The administration set up a White House multiagency science task force to do a quick review. That task force issued its report Jan. 11.

The Society of Environmental Journalists has objected to the part of the report that urges agencies to let scientists speak to the media — but only “through appropriate coordination with their supervisor and public affairs office.”

Not only did the SEJ urge the White House beforehand not to let public information officers restrict scientist-journalist communication, but the SEJ and the Society of Professional Journalists objected in writing after the White House ignored this advice.


Cataloging instances of political interference

That will not be the end of the story. Even more importantly, Biden’s memo ordered the task force to

“[I]nclude an analysis of any instances in which existing scientific-integrity policies have not been followed or enforced, including whether such deviations from existing policies have resulted in improper political interference in the conduct of scientific research and the collection of scientific or technological data; led to the suppression or distortion of scientific or technological findings, data, information, conclusions, or technical results.”

The task force report did include some case studies, but did not really catalog many instances of political interference at the EPA. If it gathered more examples, these were not published.

We do know, however, that considerable effort has gone into collecting examples from the EPA. Many (not all) of them took place during the Trump administration.

We know this because the interference — and the fact of organized efforts to compile it during the Biden era — have been reported (may require subscription) many times in the news media.

Some of the worst, evaluation of toxic risk in new chemicals, has been reported by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept. The WatchDog has reported on the interference often, as in this recent review. In The New York Times, Lisa Friedman reported that the list was expected to reach some 90 instances.

So there is a list, but the EPA has not published it and we do not have it yet. The EPA should publish it.

The EPA Office of Inspector General did a report in May 2020 (near the end of the Trump administration), but it was pretty vague and did not list violations. It was based on an annual survey, and one key finding was that violations of the scientific integrity policy were not all being reported.

The 2021 survey also found that violations were not being reported (subscription required), but did not elicit details.


Improving the scientific integrity policy

Biden’s memo also ordered the agencies to annually pursue “regular assessment and iterative improvement of agency scientific-integrity policies.” That process has also been going on at the EPA, according to reports by Stephen Lee (subscription required) at Bloomberg Environment.

It bears noting that the EPA already had a scientific integrity policy. In fact, it had had one even before President Obama issued a similar executive order back in 2009.

The WatchDog is sad to report that the EPA’s existing scientific integrity policy was not good enough to keep the Trump administration from dragging EPA science into a dark alley and allowing it to be mugged by regulated industries. Knowing this, Biden asked agencies to pull up their socks.


History reminds us that there

were assaults on scientific

integrity in many previous years.


History reminds us that there were assaults on scientific integrity in many previous years.

Climate denial was federal policy during the George W. Bush administration — which tried to un-publish the National Climate Assessment as Republicans in Congress cheered.

It was just such anti-science efforts that inspired the Obama White House to require scientific integrity policies at almost all federal agencies. The EPA actually had a policy years before that, although the current one mostly dates back to the Obama era.

The January 2021 Biden memo would mean revisions to the EPA’s existing policy. That hasn’t happened yet in public, although it is quite clear (subscription required) that it is going on at the EPA.

The WatchDog hopes that the coming iteration of the SIP will be fully documented and open to public participation via a docket or similar mechanism. That would certainly bolster public confidence.

Also, it would give environmental journalists one more chance to say that EPA scientific integrity depends on reporters having direct, unhindered and unsupervised access to agency scientists for interviews.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 6. 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.

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