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Opinion What prompted the EPA to attack an AP reporter over an accurate Harvey story?

Harris County chief David DeLeon put the needs of others first during Hurricane Harvey. The cleanup, both at home, and at work isn’t done yet. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Jayne Orenstein, Nicole Ellis/The Washington Post)

The Environmental Protection Agency is all over Michael Biesecker, a reporter for the Associated Press. His reading habits, for instance. “We are able to see who opens our emails,” says an EPA official, referring to press-release blasts sent out by the agency. “Michael very rarely opens a positive story about [EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt. He only opens stories where he tries to create problems.”

Scrutiny of Biesecker’s press-release consumption amped up in the summer months, after a significant dustup between the two organizations. In late June, Biesecker reported that Pruitt had “met privately with the chief executive of Dow Chemical shortly before reversing his agency’s push to ban a widely used pesticide after health studies showed it can harm children’s brains, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.”

Except that the private meeting didn’t really happen, though it was indeed listed on a schedule obtained by the AP. Scheduling conflicts prevented it from taking place. The AP ran a correction stating, in part, “A spokeswoman for the EPA says the meeting listed on the schedule was canceled, though Pruitt and [Dow Chemical CEO Andrew] Liveris did have a ‘brief introduction in passing.'”

Along with the correction, the AP ran a new story with more information about the non-meeting: “The EPA did not respond to inquiries about the scheduled meeting before the AP story was published and later did not state on the record that the meeting had been canceled.” (An EPA official protests that, indeed, the agency did respond before the story was published). The New York Times, by the way, made the very same error.

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Following that episode, the EPA pulled Biesecker from its master email list. “He’s more than welcome to visit our website,” says an EPA official, noting that there are some 50 AP reporters on the blast list — and Biesecker can get the releases from them. But why de-list the guy? “We don’t think he’s a trustworthy reporter,” says the EPA official.

The evaluation of untrustworthiness, argues the official, stems from the Dow-Pruitt meeting story, plus a previous instance in which Biesecker — along with staffer Adam Kealoha Causey — wrote an article based on emails from Pruitt’s previous work as Oklahoma attorney general. “Newly obtained emails underscore just how closely Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt coordinated with fossil fuel companies while serving as Oklahoma’s state attorney general, a position in which he frequently sued to block federal efforts to curb planet-warming carbon emissions,” notes the lead of the piece.

An EPA official cited an editorial in the Oklahoman taking issue with the story. “The fact Pruitt regularly corresponded and dealt with energy industry officials as attorney general of a state where energy is the No. 1 industry should not be surprising nor should it, by itself, be considered nefarious,” wrote the newspaper.

Other alleged Biesecker infractions have also upset the EPA. In June, Biesecker forwarded to the EPA press office a news release from Investigative Reporters and Editors announcing that Pruitt had won the organization’s “Golden Padlock” award “recognizing the most secretive U.S. agency or individual.” Noted the EPA official via email, “this unnecessary email reiterates his dislike for Mr. Pruitt.”

So there was distrust in the water when Biesecker and the AP landed on Hurricane Harvey. A trail of emails shows that the wire service decided early on how it would focus its investigative efforts: Houston has long been a petrochemical hub, with $50 billion in chemical plant construction since 2013. The city’s deep roots in this industry mean that companies have left behind a fair number of messes, some of them qualifying as EPA Superfund sites. A team of AP journalists wanted to know how these sites would fare underwater.

On Aug. 17, more than a week before Harvey’s landfall, the AP requested a copy of EPA’s “screening analysis” involving Superfund sites around floodplains or in danger of sea-level rise. As Harvey later bounced out of Texas and into Louisiana, the AP sprung into action, checking out flooded Superfund sites — by foot and by boat — and pressing the EPA for information. Here’s an Aug. 30 email inquiry obtained by the Erik Wemple Blog: “How many Superfund sites are underwater? Specific locations? What monitoring are state and federal regulators doing this week? Are they visiting sites by boat? Are they sampling floodwater? What specific actions are they taking to potentially mitigate the risk of hazardous materials migrating off site due to flooding?” It continued pressing those issues over the following days.

On Sept. 2, Biesecker and colleague Jason Dearen showed the results of their efforts under the provocative and alarming headline, “AP EXCLUSIVE: Toxic waste sites flooded, EPA not on scene.” In all, the outlet had visited seven Superfund sites in the Houston region. Several hours after the AP issued its story, the EPA responded with a statement indicating that it had seen aerial imagery showing that 13 of 41 sites were flooded and were “experiencing possible damage.” The statement started out by denouncing “misleading and inaccurate reporting” on the topic.

The AP adjusted its article, but not its narrative:

The statement confirmed the AP’s reporting that the EPA had not yet been able to physically visit the Houston-area sites, saying the sites had “not been accessible by response personnel.” EPA staff had checked on two Superfund sites in Corpus Christi on Thursday and found no significant damage.
AP journalists used a boat to document the condition of one flooded Houston-area Superfund site, but accessed others with a vehicle or on foot. The EPA did not respond to questions about why its personnel had not yet been able to do so.

The next day, the EPA did something that federal agencies, as a general proposition, do not do. It put a news release on the EPA website blasting not just a news outlet, but a specific reporter. With attitude, too.

Yesterday, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker wrote an incredibly misleading story about toxic land sites that are under water.
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. Not only is this inaccurate, but it creates panic and politicizes the hard work of first responders who are actually in the affected area.
Here’s the truth: through aerial imaging, EPA has already conducted initial assessments at 41 Superfund sites – 28 of those sites show no damage, and 13 have experienced flooding. This was left out of the original story, along with the fact that EPA and state agencies worked with responsible parties to secure Superfund sites before the hurricane hit. Leaving out this critical information is misleading.

In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, a second EPA official criticized the AP for allegedly getting in over its head. “I’ve never experienced in my career at EPA this kind of thing happening, where the reporter shows up at a devastated site and makes his own determination,” says the official, arguing that the required skills are technical and exacting. Nothing, in other words, that a generalist scribe could profitably undertake. It’s far better, said EPA officials, to join agency experts on one of their ride-along tours, as journalists from ABC, CBS, CNBC, CNN and Bloomberg did on Monday. “Crews were able to take videos, photographs and talk directly with technical staff and subject matter experts on the ground,” reads an EPA news release/damage-control document on the tour. “Boats were on the water determining impacts at the temporary armored cap in the San Jacinto River, to provide access to the crews.”

Much of the anger within the EPA stemmed from the AP’s headlining conclusion that the agency was “not on scene.” “The sites are flooded — I don’t know what we’re supposed to do,” says one of the EPA officials. The headline was later changed to, “AP EXCLUSIVE: Toxic waste sites flooded in Houston area.”

Asked about the EPA’s charges that the wire service omitted key facts and generally placed the government agency in a bad light, AP spokeswoman Emily Leshner responded, “We stand by our original reporting and provided the EPA with ample time to respond to our questions. We included the EPA’s responses when they were provided.” Executive Editor Sally Buzbee waded into the dispute with this statement: “AP‘s exclusive story was the result of on-the-ground reporting at Superfund sites in and around Houston, as well as AP‘s strong knowledge of these sites and EPA practices. We object to the EPA’s attempts to discredit that reporting by suggesting it was completed solely from ‘the comforts of Washington’ and stand by the work of both journalists who jointly reported and wrote the story.”

Those are strong words, though they’re too few. Buzbee would have done well to lament the trajectory of Biesecker’s treatment by the EPA: He makes a single mistake in a story based on original reporting and a records request — then he publishes a hard-edged enterprise piece that displeases those in power. He also engages in some snippy emailing. Based on these considerations, the EPA places its full authority behind the imperative of crushing him.

There is no question that reporters lack the capacity to deliver laboratory-quality assessments of the dangers posed by inundated Superfund sites. And the original headline was a touch on the harsh side. Yet the AP story was factually sound, it was an act of enterprise, and it showed editorial independence. As a taxpayer, would you prefer an Associated Press that waits for agency minders to escort its people to the sites, or an Associated Press that braves the elements on its own?

Those considerations notwithstanding, the EPA chose an ad hominem form of pushback, though an agency official dissents from this characterization. “This wasn’t personal. It’s about his reporting,” says the official. “It’s not about who he is as a person.”

Note that the attacks from agency officials against the AP and its Washington-based environmental reporter are hatched from the comfort of anonymity.

We’ll be seeing more of this approach to the media, of course. An EPA official tells this blog that the release slamming Biesecker boosted morale. “I was with 20 to 30 career folks who were appalled by the story and they nearly teared up when press release went out. … This administration was defending their hard work and dedication,” said the official.

"People are more resilient than you think," says a Houston resident. Watch this Washington Post original documentary on how Southeast Texas is dealing with the devastation Harvey left behind. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)