For Immediate Release: Thursday, July 8, 2021
Contact: Kyla Bennett (508) 230-9933; Jeff Ruch (510) 213-7028
Are EPA Scientists Allowed to Talk with a Reporter?
New Administrator Says Yes but Managers Say No – Go to Public Affairs
Washington, DC — In an early test of transparency within the Biden administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is wrestling with whether to permit its staff to directly respond to reporters rather than routing all inquiries through media minders in its Office of Public Affairs, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The EPA Administrator says staff should be “accessible to the press” while an email directive this week says EPA staff “are not authorized to answer press questions directly.” (Emphasis in original)
In an all-employee memo on April 12, 2021, incoming Administrator Michael Regan committed his agency to “transparency and operating in a “’fishbowl’”…EPA also should be accessible to the press, which performs a vital role in informing the public about EPA’s actions.” He added that coordination “with the managers of your program and media relations experts in the Office of Public Affairs” is requested only “When interacting with the press in the performance of your official duties….”
Last week, PEER disclosed reports by scientists within EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) of routine alteration of new chemical assessments to remove or greatly downplay risk calculations. That disclosure has received significant press attention.
In an all-employee email of July 7, 2021, OPPT Chief of Staff Alison Pierce wrote:
“We’ve had a slight uptick recently in reporters contacting OPPT employees, so I’m sending out one of our periodic reminders that OPPT has SOPs in place should a member of the press reach out to you or your staff. Please remember that we are not authorized to answer press questions directly, and that OPPT (and EPA) have processes that should be followed should someone reach out to you.”
Pierce distributed a protocol warning staff that, if contacted by a reporter, “don’t start answering any questions. Explain that press inquiries must be handled through our press office.”
“Is EPA transparent, or is it still opaque?” asked PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney, who today sent a letter to Administrator Regan requesting clarification. “There should be an unambiguous policy that EPA scientists and other specialists should be able to answer a question from a member of the public or from a media outlet.”
EPA’s refusal to make staff available to reporters has been a source of complaints for years from organizations such as the Society of Environmental Journalists. Under Trump, EPA weaponized its Office of Public Affairs to not only deny reporters access but also to attack any perceived negative media coverage.
“Transparency is not just some garment that is thrown off whenever attention is unfavorable,” added Whitehouse. “EPA employees work at this agency, but their true employers are the American public.”