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Journalism group criticizes EPA's lack of openness

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Society of Environmental Journalists has released a statement criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to respond to public…

The Society of Environmental Journalists has released a statement criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to respond to public records requests, including still-lingering questions about a Jan. 9 chemical spill.

"As we celebrate 'Sunshine Week,' it’s worth noting that nowadays EPA in many cases simply fails to answer questions posed by journalists on behalf of the public – even some that are routine and non-controversial," wrote Beth Parke and Joseph Davis. Parke is SEJ's executive director and Davis is the director of SEJ's Watchdog Project.

"When the agency does respond, a favorite tactic is to wait until just before or even after a reporter’s deadline and then mail a short written statement that does not answer the questions," they wrote.

SEJ has been particularly vocal about the EPA's lack of responsiveness since a Jan. 9 chemical spill in West Virginia left more than 300,000 people without clean drinking water.

Parke told the Reporters Committee after that chemical spill that the incident had been a tipping point for environmental journalists.

“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?”

SEJ has asked the EPA to improve communication between the agency and journalists, including making specific improvements such as 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.

In the weeks after the chemical spill, the EPA responded to SEJ and indicated it was "committed to transparency and helping reporters and the public understand" issues surrounding the spill. SEJ's statement today asks, "So what's the hang-up, then?"