McCarthy faces transparency questions

Journalists, GOP demand more openness at EPA

Journalists and the GOP called for more transparency at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week, as Gina McCarthy, the Obama administration’s pick to succeed Lisa Jackson as head of the agency, entered congressional confirmation hearings.

The day before McCarthy, who now heads the EPA’s air pollution division, faced off with the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works, a group of Republicans on the committee and the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) released separate statements, with different motivations, accusing the agency of secrecy and calling for more openness.

In an open letter posted on SEJ’s website and at Environmental Health News, Beth Parke, the group’s executive director, and Joseph Davis, director of its Freedom of Information Watchdog Project, singled out the EPA and said the Obama administration had failed to live up the president’s first-day promise to create an “unprecedented level of openness in government”:

The EPA is one of the most closed, opaque agencies to the press…

Reporters who have covered the EPA for several decades say the agency was far more media-friendly and open prior to 2000. But media policies were substantially eroded during the administration of George W. Bush, and they’ve only gotten worse under President Obama.

Today, the Senate holds its hearing to consider McCarthy’s nomination. A new EPA administrator is a chance for a fresh start, but we are troubled by her past statements defending the agency’s tight grip on communications between journalists and agency scientists and policymakers.

Parke and Davis were referring to comments McCarthy made at a September 2012 event, organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, that dealt with problems with access to government information. At one point, McCarthy seemed to suggest that message control was more important than allowing EPA employees to speak freely with the press, saying:

It is the job of the agency to make sure that personalities don’t get in the way of really discussing the science in a way that maintains the agency’s credibility. And that’s the balance that we try to bring to it, is to just make sure we are really providing factual information, not a layer of assessment that is based on someone’s personal interest or advocacy.

As Parke and Davis explained in their letter:

Reporters are regularly required to submit written questions, even on the simplest daily stories. Interview requests are rarely granted. Delays are routine. Replies, when they do come, are from press officers, not scientists or policymakers. Answers to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act also are routinely delayed.

Ken Ward Jr., a former chair of SEJ’s Freedom of Information Task Force, highlighted Parke and Davis’s letter in a post for his blog at the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. Ward, who covers the coal industry, knocked the Union of Concerned Scientists for giving the EPA’s media policy an ‘A-’ on a report card it released last month that evaluated federal agencies.

“The practice is much different from the policy,” Ward noted, pointing to the secrecy surrounding a large spill from an ExxonMobil oil pipeline that ruptured in Arkansas last month.

Three days after the incident, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the EPA was on the scene and running the show, but InsideClimate News reporter Lisa Song found a different situation on the ground.

On April 2, Song reported that as the spill entered its fifth day, it was unclear exactly how many thousands of barrels of crude had escaped. All areas of the cleanup operation were off limits to reporters, and the local command center for organizing the response was locked down as well, with a security guard blocking reporters from entering the parking lot.

When Song asked to speak with a government official, an ExxonMobil spokeswoman came to the gate and confirmed that officials from the EPA and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)—the federal pipeline regulator—were present, but Song couldn’t even get their names, let along find them, and she left in frustration.

When she returned the next day, however, a different security guard was on duty and waved her through the gate. As her editor, Susan White, later reported, a second person directed Song to the warehouse housing the command center. Inside, she went to a table with a sign marked “public affairs,” where she finally got the name and contact information of the EPA spokesman at the site. Before Song could ask any more questions, however, ExxonMobil personnel spotted her and told her that if she didn’t leave, she would be arrested for criminal trespassing. Song left, but InsideClimate filed complaints with the EPA and PHMSA.

Such grievances are not uncommon, unfortunately, but they were not what six Senate Republicans on the Environment and Public Works committee had in mind when they sent a letter to McCarthy on Wednesday complaining:

For too long, EPA has failed to deliver on the promises of transparency espoused by President Barack Obama, former Administrator Lisa Jackson, and by you. Accordingly, we find particular interest in continuing to determine if EPA remains entrenched in a process of secrecy.

Far from improving the agency’s openness with the press, the senators’ concern centers on what they believe is an orchestrated campaign within the agency to duck congressional oversight and crush the fossil fuels industry.

Last year, Chris Horner, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank that advocates for limited government, discovered that in addition to her official agency email account, Lisa Jackson had kept a secondary account under the pseudonym “Richard Windsor.”

Republican senators charged that the alternate account was an attempt to shield official business from prying eyes. In an op-ed last month in U.S. News & World Report, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, one the six Republicans who signed the letter to McCarthy, accused former EPA Region 8 Administrator James Martin, who stepped down in February, of using a private email account to hide a plot to work with environmental activists to quash the use of coal and oil in the US.

The use of secondary email accounts is concerning, even if the evidence against Martin is pretty flimsy, and numerous journalists have reported that the use of dual accounts at the EPA (and other agencies) was standard practice during both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations because of the high volume of mail received on official accounts. As Politico’s Erica Martinson explained in November:

For more than a decade, EPA administrators have been assigned two official, government-issued email accounts: a public account and an internal account. The email address for the public account is posted on EPA’s website and is used by hundreds of thousands of Americans to send messages to the administrator. The internal account is an everyday, working email account of the administrator to communicate with staff and other government officials…

Senior EPA leadership and EPA regional administrators had the email address, as did anyone to whom the administrator provided it, and the messages were all considered part of the public record.

Nonetheless, the pseudonymous emails accounts have apparently confused EPA underlings and journalists, Martinson noted. Clearly, the agency can do a better, but whether or not it will better remains to be seen.

Reporters from The Associated Press, The New York Times, Politico, and The Houston Chronicle all noted that at McCarthy’s confirmation hearing on Thursday, which produced no result, Vitter and other Republicans spent more time discussing the alternate email accounts than the country’s biggest environmental issues.

For the record, McCarthy said that she’d never had a secondary EPA account or private email account to conduct official business, and at the Charleston Gazette on Friday, Ward had a second post about the hearing, which argued that “Democrats let GOP hijack EPA the transparency issue.”

Indeed, the EPA’s terrible relationship with the press never came up, which is a shame. The senators questioning McCarthy should absolutely grill her about the lack of openness and access to information, but the place to focus is the many ways in which the agency continues to shut out journalists on environmental matters large and small.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,