Spills and chills

Journalists struggle to get complete, accurate information on the West Virginia chemical spill
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Emily Grannis

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Leaks in storage tanks containing MCHM, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, led to a ban on use of tap water for parts of West Virginia.

On the morning of Jan. 9, about 10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked from a storage tank into a river in Charleston, W.Va., contaminating water supplies for more than 300,000 people. More than a month later, journalists are still struggling to get information about the spill and resulting public health risk.

Ken Ward Jr., who had been covering the story for the Charleston Gazette, said the difficulty in getting responses from government officials began just after the spill. At a press conference on Jan. 10, Ward said, James Hoyer of the West Virginia Army National Guard announced that the Centers for Disease Control had determined that 1 part per million of the chemicals that had spilled would be safe in drinking water.

“We wanted to know where that 1 part per million number came from,” Ward said, adding that reporters could not find any existing CDC literature that mentioned a safe quantity of MCMH, one of the chemicals that leaked from the Freedom Industries plant. Ward was referred to someone in the governor’s office to answer his question. “And I waited, and I waited and I waited and I waited, and she finally called me and said no I’m not going to explain this to you, you’ll just have to trust me.”

National groups get involved

Ward and his colleagues have continued to have trouble getting clear answers from various state and federal agencies, whether through informal interview requests or formal requests under the Freedom of Information Act. The lack of communication from the government during the crisis prompted the Society of Environmental Journalists to get involved, asking the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency in a Jan. 20 letter to explain delays in responding to journalists.

“During crises like these, it is the job of the news media to seek reliable answers for the public and hold government agencies accountable. It is a time when the government agencies responsible for health and safety need to be active, open, transparent, and available to answer public and news media questions,” SEJ wrote. “From the beginning of the West Virginia emergency, government agencies seemed to be evading the news media, and by extension the public.”

SEJ cited issues like the EPA’s failure to comment on the crisis until a week after the spill and the CDC’s refusal to clarify the data behind its 1 part-per-million analysis as examples of the lack of responsiveness.

Administrators from the CDC responded just two days later, apologizing for “short-chang[ing] the media” and promising to “work to reach that critical balance between accuracy and timely release of information the public expects and needs to protect their health.”

Tim Wheeler, chairman of SEJ’s freedom of information taskforce, said the group appreciated the CDC’s prompt response and said the agency has been engaging in ongoing dialogue with environmental journalists since the letter.

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Workers inspect an area outside a retaining wall around storage tanks where a chemical leaked into the Elk River at Freedom Industries storage facility in Charleston, W.Va.

“We hope to have some meaningful dialogue with them about how they could change their procedures and policies,” Wheeler said.

Barbara Reynolds, director of the division of public affairs at the CDC, wrote the CDC’s response to SEJ. In an email interview, she said the CDC usually tries to “allow a state to take the lead during a crisis event in their state, including their communication with the public and media.”

By contrast, the EPA responded nine days after SEJ’s letter saying it had responded “directly and in a timely fashion” to media requests during the crisis and that it was “committed to transparency and helping reporters and the public understand the potential risks with the spill.”

Ward said he responded to Tom Reynolds, the EPA officer who sent the letter, “inquiring as to what exactly his definition of ‘timely’ was,” but did not receive a response. Wheeler also indicated that although the EPA claimed it communicated with 25 news organizations in the days after the spill, “they did not detail which news organizations or how they communicated.”

SEJ Executive Director Beth Parke said the difference between the responses from the CDC and the EPA was “striking,” because while the CDC seemed interested in working with journalists to improve communication, the EPA was not “taking this seriously as a genuine public interest question.”

Tom Reynolds, associate administrator for external affairs at EPA, wrote CDC’s response to SEJ. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Continued coverage

Ward’s initial reporting efforts included trying to find scientists at both the CDC and the EPA who could answer technical questions about the safety and public health risks of the MCMH and stripped PPH, the two chemicals that leaked into the water supply. He said he received a few “terse, not very helpful” emails from public relations officials, and that the information often conflicted with what outside scientists were telling reporters about the risks.

“We ought not have political operatives deciding what information the public gets in a health crisis,” Ward said, adding that both the CDC and EPA set up interviews for him after the Gazette published stories indicating the agencies wouldn’t talk to the press.

Among the problems Ward has encountered in trying to cover the spill is in getting data and testing results.

“We’re just being told to take the government’s word on this,” he said. “We still don’t know exactly what their testing protocol was.”

As he faced increasing difficulty in finding government sources who could speak knowledgeably about the issue, Ward moved from requesting interviews to using more formal mechanisms to get information. But he has found that the agencies have not been quick to reply to requests under the Freedom of Information Act either.

“One of the concerns here is that scientists are telling us that the particular chemicals that leaked here have a tendency to adhere to the materials home plumbing materials are made out of,” Ward said, citing one example and adding that the EPA claimed to have a report that reached a different conclusion, but refused to disclose it on the grounds that it might jeopardize homeland security.

Symptoms of a larger problem

Although the chemical spill crisis brought focus to the problem environmental journalists often have getting clear, accurate information from government sources, Wheeler said this is an ongoing issue.

“This was a crisis, obviously much more urgent than many issues, but SEJ members have experienced difficulty for some time in getting interviews and getting prompt and meaningful responses to requests for information,” he said.

Parke indicated that part of SEJ’s goal in reaching out to the CDC and the EPA was to improve communications generally, not just point out the difficulties in covering this particular crisis.

“It’s really been a trigger incident in terms of how many of these do we have to live through,” she said. “We’re all in the public service here. We’re journalists, you are public servants. Let’s keep it on that level. How can we all do our jobs better?”

Ward, who has been doing environmental journalism for more than 20 years, said that given his past dealings with the CDC and EPA on other issues, he was not surprised by the difficulties he has had covering the West Virginia crisis.

“With both of these agencies and particularly with EPA, this is absolutely nothing new,” he said. “I am not at all surprised that when faced with a tremendous environmental disaster, my community is unable to get information from EPA that might help them understand what’s happening to them.”

CDC’s Reynolds is also the author of Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication and CDC's Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication course. In those materials, she outlines six key principles for agencies responding to public health emergencies.

“Expect the public to immediately judge the content of an official emergency message in the following way: ‘Was it timely? Can I trust this source? and Are they being honest?’” Reynolds wrote. “These questions make implementing the six principles of crisis and emergency risk communication, or CERC, an imperative.”

The six principles Reynolds outlines are be first, be right, be credible, express empathy, promote action and show respect.

“The public can withstand ambiguity if they are allowed to follow the process health officials are using to find answers. In an age of so many modes of communication between officials and the public, we must recognize the overriding demand for information to be delivered quickly,” she wrote. “The key is to tell the public from the very beginning what we know and what we don't know. We must continue to explain that ‘things can and do change.’ A big dollop of humility and openness in the way we communicate is most important.”

In its letter to the CDC and EPA, SEJ pushed the agencies to put in place stronger policies to encourage communication between agency officials and members of the media. Among the requests were: 24-hour access to public information officers; avoidance of generalized statements to reporters; access to in-house experts; availability of more people for longer give-and-take interviews so that reporters could get more in-depth information and explanations of issues; and the publication of more data.

Wheeler said SEJ is planning its next steps and is “still hopeful” that both agencies will engage in productive discussions with journalism groups.

“But we’re not going to let this drop,” he said. “This is too important, and it’s too important for the public, not just for news organizations, to get this information.”