At Gina McCarthy’s congressional confirmation hearing in early April, questions about transparency at the Environmental Protection Agency, which she’d been tapped to run, weighed heavy.
Both the Society of Environmental Journalists and Republicans on the Senate Committee on Environmental and Public Works, which hosted the confirmation hearing, had released separate statements accusing the EPA of secrecy and demanding more openness, though their gripes and motivations were very different.
SEJ’s grievances, which it has expressed repeatedly over the years, revolved around reporters’ lack of access to experts and information within the agency, the need to get permissions for interviews, and problems with public information officers.
The GOP’s complaints, which are fairly new, centered on what they believed was a systematic effort among top EPA officials to duck congressional oversight by using pseudonymous emails accounts in addition to their official accounts.
As soon as the alternate accounts came to light last fall, politicians on both sides of the aisle quickly explained that 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. The accounts were tracked like any other and would thus turn up in a Freedom of Information Act request, although there might be no way to know whose accounts they were.
At McCarthy’s hearing, Barbara Boxer, the Democratic chair of the Environmental and Public Works committee, tried to assuage the GOP’s concerns by releasing the alternate email addresses used by EPA officials going back at least a decade. Nonetheless, Boxer’s Republican colleagues spent more time asking McCarthy about those accounts than about the country’s biggest environmental issues, many reporters noted afterward.
The dual email accounts, while confounding and obfuscatory, are not the EPA’s biggest transparency problem, however. In the month since McCarthy’s hearing, the agency has continued to have a fraught relationship with the press.
Shortly after the hearing, James O’Hara, the former head of the EPA’s main public affairs office (he has since left the agency), heard about SEJ’s complaints and requested a meeting with the group, which took place on April 25. According to an account of the rendezvous released this week by SEJ:
O’Hara said he wanted a “reset” in EPA’s relationship with SEJ and the press, not to rehash past problems but to focus on doing better from now on. We proposed they develop an agencywide policy for handling news media requests for interviews and information, one that would emphasize openness for their scientists and staff to discuss their work with journalists. We urged them to hold training sessions for the public affairs staff, and offered to have SEJ members participate. And we recommended that the EPA administrator and other agency brass hold regular press conferences to which journalists could call in and ask questions on a variety of topics.
O’Hara didn’t commit to any specific changes at the meeting, but he acknowledged that the agency had received, but failed to respond to a letter that SEJ sent to former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson in January 2012 about poor media relations, and he apologized for the oversight. O’Hara also acknowledged that in the first years of Obama’s presidency, senior officials at EPA held quarterly conference calls with SEJ leaders to discuss concerns. Rather than reinstating those calls, however, he said that his “door is always open,” and that SEJ’s leaders should just pick up the phone whenever they have a problem. O’Hara’s successor, Nancy Grantham, who was also present, echoed the pledge
Tim Wheeler, a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and chair of SEJ’s Freedom of Information Task Force, said he wasn’t very optimistic, however. As he wrote in his report:
Whether anything changes will be up to them, of course. And since then, we’ve heard of more instances of reporters having interview requests ignored and getting instead terse, nonresponsive emailed statements days after they asked for information. We’ve pressed them again to consider our proposals and called for systemic reform of the public-affairs operation.