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The EPA’s increasing hostility toward the press, explained

Why are EPA guards shoving reporters?

The EPA under Scott Pruitt has been on a war footing with the media.
The EPA under Scott Pruitt increasingly treats the press like the enemy.
Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

A national summit on drinking water contaminants at the Environmental Protection Agency this week was so exclusive that reporters from E&E News and CNN were turned away at the gates.

EPA guards didn’t just keep some reporters out of the meeting; they shoved one reporter trying to cover it, the Associated Press’s Ellen Knickmeyer.

While some outlets, including Politico and Bloomberg BNA, were permitted to cover the Tuesday morning session, the EPA blatantly excluded others, pitting reporters who cover the agency against one another (full disclosure: I’m friends with several of them).

The following day, no reporters were allowed in, even the ones who were let into the earlier session. When reporters raised a stink, the EPA said there was a limited capacity at the event on the first day and the second day of the event was for government officials only and did not constitute a public hearing.

But let’s be clear: The EPA is a public agency responsible for protecting the health of Americans, and this week we saw it limiting media coverage and trying to shield its work from scrutiny.

It’s not surprising that the EPA is trying to control press coverage to protect its administrator, the scandal-plagued Scott Pruitt, who is facing more than a dozen federal audits, inquiries, and investigations. But the EPA is also throttling media access to its work on everything from toxic chemicals in drinking water to limiting the science used to develop regulations.

The EPA’s adversarial relationship with the press is nothing new and predates the Trump administration. What is different about the current administration is how much further it has gone, antagonizing reporters and even being openly hostile toward them while trying to shroud the agency’s activities in secrecy.

In trying to avoid a PR nightmare, the EPA created another one

This week’s summit was convened to discuss per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a.k.a. PFAS. These are synthetic chemicals used in everything from stain-resistant fabrics to nonstick pans.

There are concerns that these compounds could cause cancer, immune deficiencies, and thyroid problems when you ingest them, but the question is how much is safe. According to the Environmental Working Group, 110 million people could be drinking PFAS-contaminated water.

Earlier this month, the Department of Health and Human Services was preparing to release a study from its Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry looking at two PFAS varieties, PFOA and PFOS. These chemicals have been leaching into groundwater around 126 military bases above levels that the EPA considers safe, but the new study found that the safe limit for these chemicals is actually 10 times lower, as low as 12 parts per trillion.

Politico obtained emails that showed the White House and the EPA scrambling to block the release of the study, which one unnamed official at the White House Office of Management and Budget described as a “public relations nightmare.”

“The impact to EPA and [the Department of Defense] is going to be extremely painful,” the official wrote.

So the EPA was on high alert going into the two-day summit, which was convened to hear from industry groups, environmental groups, and states as to how PFAS should be governed.

Hence the tight limits on the press. Even the reporters who were allowed in Tuesday morning were initially not permitted to stay for the whole event.

The EPA’s excuse was that there wasn’t enough room for all the press and parts of the event were live-streamed, though a reporter inside noted there were plenty of open seats:

However, after the story of Knickmeyer’s physical removal from the building gained legs, the EPA relented and allowed all media to attend the afternoon portion of the event.

Lincoln Ferguson, a senior advisor to Pruitt, also called Knickmeyer to apologize. But the second day of the PFAS summit on Wednesday was completely closed to press.

Press groups like Society of Environmental Journalists were none too pleased with the whole ordeal.

“It beggars understanding that the EPA would prevent any reporters from covering a topic of such intense nationwide interest and concern,” they wrote in a letter to the EPA this week about the summit. “But these are just the latest additions to your pattern of antagonism toward the press, and disregard for the public’s right to know what EPA is or is not doing to protect their health and the environment.”

Like the White House, the EPA sees the media as the enemy

The EPA’s adversarial relationship with the press is nothing new and predates the Trump administration. I’ve directly or indirectly covered the EPA for six years, and the agency has always been defensive and slow to respond to inquiries, if it bothered to respond at all, and would often direct me to press releases rather than making officials available to comment.

Once in 2015, I was speaking to an EPA scientist after a hearing on Capitol Hill. As the scientist was answering some of my questions, an EPA press official stepped in between us and cut him off mid-sentence and told me I would have to direct all my questions to the press office. The office then never responded to my follow-up.

Reporters covering the EPA in the past have also seen the agency leak their scoops to other outlets when reporters did their due diligence in asking for comments before publishing a story.

But President Trump has used the media as his favorite punching bag, and that attitude has spread throughout his administration, including the EPA, which is now behaving as if it’s on war footing with the press and operating with unprecedented secrecy.

In addition to surrounding himself with a full-time 20-person security detail that costs $3 million a year and building a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office, Administrator Pruitt doesn’t release his public schedule, leaving the press to determine his whereabouts after the fact. This is in contrast to his predecessors, or even other administration officials (the State Department sends out an advance schedule for top officials every night, for example).

Pruitt has also barred media from important EPA events, including an announcement for a new initiative for transparency in the science used in devising regulations. The agency is now even less responsive to press questions (only a third of my inquiries this year have generated any kind of response at all) and is selectively sending out press releases to various news outlets and withholding them from others.

Mother Jones reported that Pruitt approved and then scrapped a $120,000 no-bid contract last year with an opposition research firm for an “aggressive style of campaign-style delivery of real-time coverage” of how news outlets reported on the EPA.

And EPA press officials themselves have been startlingly hostile to reporters.

This week’s incident wasn’t even the first time the agency attacked the Associated Press. The EPA’s press shop has repeatedly disparaged reporter Michael Biesecker.

“Michael very rarely opens a positive story about Scott Pruitt,” an EPA official told the Washington Post. “He only opens stories where he tries to create problems.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Biesecker reported on the EPA’s highly polluted Superfund sites around Houston affected by the storm, noting that some sites experienced damage, threatening water contamination, and that the EPA hadn’t made it to the scene.

The EPA then put out a press release criticizing Biesecker personally.

“Despite reporting from the comfort of Washington, Biesecker had the audacity to imply that agencies aren’t being responsive to the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey,” according to the release. “Not only is this inaccurate, but it creates panic and politicizes the hard work of first responders who are actually in the affected area.”

This was despite the fact that the AP sent reporters to seven Superfund sites in person to survey the damage. The agency also didn’t dispute any of the reported facts in the story. Nonetheless, the press release boosted morale at the EPA, signaling just how much the agency sees the press as the opposition. “I was with 20 to 30 career folks who were appalled by the [AP] story and they nearly teared up when [the] press release went out,” an agency official told the Washington Post.

The Associated Press is not the only outlet to be singled out by the EPA.

When New York Times reporter Eric Lipton asked the EPA for comments on his story about how a former staffer for the American Chemistry Council, a lobbying group for the chemicals industry, was now at the EPA weakening PFOA regulations, the agency’s press office stalled for weeks, before responding with a whine.

“No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece,” then-EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman wrote to Lipton. “The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”

Bowman herself spent four years working at the ACC and is now working for Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA).

The EPA’s press shop has also tried to pit reporters against one another. When Lipton contacted a spokesperson to confirm details reported by other outlets, the spokesperson accused him of trying to “steal work from other outlets and pretend like it’s your own reporting” and then forwarded the message to other reporters from USA Today and E&E News.

Unlike with White House reporters, there is no official pool system with EPA reporters to share their work. The EPA and Pruitt have taken advantage of that, granting more access, documents, and interviews to conservative media outlets and friendly journalists to shape press coverage.

Some reporters are now informally keeping tabs on the agency together and occasionally tipping off others to events, a rare occurrence in a notoriously competitive industry:

This week’s incident with the press at the PFAS summit has once again brought unwanted attention to the EPA, which in another world might call Pruitt’s leadership into question. But under Trump, who loves to pick fights with the media, the ordeal is unlikely to register at the White House. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to comment on the issue Tuesday at a press briefing.

“I’m not going to weigh into random hypotheticals that may or may not exist,” she said. “I don’t know any information about this specific incident.”

But some in Congress want the EPA’s inspector general to review this week’s incidents with the press, adding yet another investigation to the growing list:

The EPA did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

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