In Depth

Mixed Reviews for the New EPA

By Debra Kaufman

When Barack Obama was elected president of the United States many environmental journalists felt optimistic that his call for transparency signaled easier days ahead for obtaining information from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now, nearly nine months into his administration, not everyone is sure that things have changed.
“It’s way, way, way too early to judge how this administration is going to be on transparency issues,” said Ken Ward, chair of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ First Amendment Task Force and a staff writer at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. “On the other hand, the EPA is still insisting that EPA staffers shouldn’t be talking to the media, only PR people should. And they want questions in advance. If Obama believes in transparency, he’ll issue an order to cease this.”

Under the Bush administration getting information from the EPA was slow and painful. “It was difficult for our members to get information,” said Ward. “Freedom of Information Act requests were not handled in a timely manner. There were a lot of situations where EPA officials weren’t allowed to talk to journalists and, when they were, the EPA insisted on having PR minders present.”

Things got so bad that in September 2005 SEJ’s First Amendment Task Force issued a report, “A Flawed Tool — Environmental Reporters’ Experiences With the Freedom of Information Act,” and recommended that “actions by Congress, journalists and the public to better ensure that this democratizing law is carried out faithfully.”

Fast-forward to 2009 and the new administration’s EPA. OMB Watch, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization formed in 1983 to shed light on the secrecy shrouding the White House Office of Management and Budget, has stated that the Obama administration’s high priority on transparency is bearing fruit most quickly at the EPA.

“Across a range of issues, the EPA is taking proactive steps to improve transparency, collecting and releasing to the public important environmental data needed to protect the environment and public health,” said the report posted on Sept. 15. “These actions, combined with instructions from the EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, to operate more openly, are a distinct change from agency policies during the last several years.”

Still, not everyone is content. New York Times science writer Andrew C. Revkin has had only one experience trying to get information under the new administration’s EPA, and it was not positive. “It’s no easier under the new administration,” he said. “They’re no more forthcoming than they were under the Bush administration. They’re very defensive and very slow on some things.”

Society of Environmental Journalists President Christy George, however, insists that “the early signs have been good.” She’s referring to a conference call she’s had with a number of EPA officials. “We asked them to roll back some of the information they’d been blacking out,” she said. On Sept. 15, OMB Watch reported that the EPA released the Toxics Release Inventory, which tracks the release or transfer of more than 650 toxic chemicals from facilities nationwide, much earlier than the past administration.

“There’s an ongoing conversation, written, personal and on the phone,” said George, who reports that 10 public officers from various EPA regions are expected to attend this year’s SEJ Conference.

She notes, however, that SEJ also reached out to the Bush administration’s EPA. “The beginnings of the Bush administration was positive as well,” she said. “But after 9/11, one of the biggest problems SEJ had was that they shut down the Web sites and any information having to do with nuclear power plants, chemical plants, pipelines and dams.”

For many environmental journalists, however, FOIA requests are less significant than a relationship with officials much closer to home. “Broad-brush stories about national issues are something we’re not usually doing,” said Jim Parsons, investigative reporter at WTAE-TV, an ABC-affiliated Hearst Television station in Pittsburgh. “We’re local TV so our job is to provide stories that impact communities in our viewing area. I submit FOIA requests on occasion, but I usually submit public record requests on a local and state level.”

Ward says that although he has personally had a couple of good experiences with FOIA requests from the new administration’s EPA, he cautions journalists to be vigilant about how the EPA reacts to their FOIA requests over the coming months and years. “The journalist’s job is to hold that agency accountable and I think it’s important that journalists make sure that we continue to do that. I hope my colleagues file a lot of FOIA requests and hold the EPA accountable to the president’s promise of transparency.”

A case in point: When this journalist called the EPA for an official to speak on the record, the communications officer asked for the questions in advance, said that the EPA may only be able to speak on background, and then failed to provide an official to comment for this story.