Journalists, scientists oppose EPA muzzling of experts

Wisconsin Gazette

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must not interfere with leading national scientists from talking to media outlets and the public, says a coalition of journalists and scientists concerned with the an agency memorandum instructing Science Advisory Board members to get permission before talking to the press.

“The EPA wants to control what information the public receives about crucial issues affecting Americans’ health and well-being,” Society of Professional Journalists president David Cuillier said in a news release. “The people are entitled to get this information unfiltered from scientists, not spoon-fed by government spin doctors who might mislead and hide information for political reasons or to muzzle criticism.”

The SPJ, Society of Environmental Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press along with the American Geophysical Union, the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Society for Conservation Biology sent a letter to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy demanding the agency reverse its policy.

“If EPA scientists — or any other scientists — can’t tell reporters what they know, then the public is likelier to remain in the dark,” said Joseph A. Davis, director of SEJ’s WatchDog Project. “That makes it easier for political appointees to mislead the public about environmental issues that may critically affect their health.”

Press groups in recent years have criticized the EPA for increasing roadblocks to information. For example, during the Elk River water crises in West Virginia earlier this year, the EPA stonewalled reporters seeking to find out how the released chemicals would affect citizens.

The memo would extend EPA’s already-restrictive vetting requirements for responding to external requests for information to independent scientists who advise the agency. The memo states: “If a representative member receives a request from a source that they do not represent or if a (special government employee) receives a request related to (their) employment from a non-EPA source (such as a member of the press, a trade association, or other non-governmental organization, or members of Congress or their staff), the…member should forward that request to” a designated agency employee, who will either “respond to the request or will forward it to the appropriate office within the Agency for response.”

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that it’s inappropriate for the agency to place these restrictions on independent scientists. The memo contradicts current guidelines for advisory board members and also cuts against EPA’s own scientific integrity policy, which is supposed to guarantee agency scientists the right to speak with journalists and outside groups about their work.