For the Environmental Protection Agency, a gathering of state and tribal officials at agency headquarters Tuesday was supposed to be about stopping a dangerous class of industrial chemicals from making their way into waterways.
Instead, it became about stopping reporters.
On Tuesday, officials at the EPA barred reporters from three news organizations from covering in person a speech delivered by Administrator Scott Pruitt. One reporter even said EPA guards took a reporter by the shoulders to forcibly remove her from the building.
The exclusion of journalists from CNN, the Associated Press and E&E News is the latest example of a lack of transparency from the EPA, according to critics from both the environmentalism and journalism worlds. A day the EPA meant to highlight the "critical national leadership" it is providing on containing the toxic chemicals instead turned the spotlight on the Trump administration's efforts to contain coverage of the agency as Pruitt faces several spending and management controversies.
“The treatment of reporters at today’s EPA summit on contaminants was a disgrace, but not a surprise," Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement. "The Trump administration — and Mr. Pruitt’s EPA in particular — have shown a repeated disregard for the role of a free press and the public's right to information about their government."
At the event Tuesday morning, AP reporter Ellen Knickmeyer tweeted that EPA guards “shoved” a journalist out of the building. Knickmeyer declined to identify herself as the reporter when asked by Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi, but AP later confirmed that she was the one excluded.
Knickmeyer’s boss, AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, called the episode “alarming and a direct threat to the public’s right to know about what is happening inside their government.” She added, “It is particularly distressing that any journalist trying to cover an event in the public interest would be forcibly removed.” By midafternoon, the EPA reversed course, apologized to Knickmeyer and permitted her to cover the conference’s afternoon session.
Now the incident has become yet another Pruitt-related topic of inquiry at the White House and in Congress.
Shortly after the alleged shove, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), ranking member on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the EPA, sent a letter to Pruitt asking him to explain the "disturbing treatment of journalists under your leadership." And White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said "we'll look into the matter" when asked about the episode during a press conference Tuesday.
The EPA had invited several other journalists, including those from The Washington Post, to the event, but the agency said not all journalists who sought entry could be accommodated. “This was simply an issue of the room reaching capacity, which reporters were aware of prior to the event,” agency spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement. “We were able to accommodate 10 news outlets and provided a live stream for those we could not accommodate.”
Drowned-out by the coverage of kerfuffle was some policy news the EPA likely would have preferred to be the focus of coverage of the summit. In his remarks to reporters, Pruitt vowed that the EPA will soon take steps under the Safe Drinking Water Act to evaluate the need for a federal threshold, known as a "maximum contaminant level," of the chemicals in drinking water. Such a move, if completed, would go beyond the guidance on lifetime exposure to toxic polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances — better known as PFASs — that the agency published during the Obama administration.
"That's the reason we're here today," Pruitt said, adding that the agency intends to "take action, not just raise awareness" in coming months.
And it was supposed to be about photo-ops like this one between Pruitt and Rob Allen, mayor of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., one of the several towns stricken with PFASs pollution in its drinking water.
Thanks to Mayor of Hoosick Falls Rob Allen & all the stakeholders from across the country for attending the National Leadership Summit @EPA. We’ve had some very good & important discussions today about PFAS in the environment. Together, we are working to protect public health. pic.twitter.com/m4VOgSqfUg— Administrator Pruitt (@EPAScottPruitt) May 22, 2018
The access issues weren't just about journalists. Even before the EPA opened its doors to about 200 representatives of local governments and industry groups, the agency came under criticism for excluding some members from communities contaminated by PFASs.
Kristen Mello, a resident of Westfield, Mass., wanted to attend the PFAS summit. A co-founding member of the Westfield Residents Advocating for Themselves (WRAFT), a grass-roots anti-pollution group, Mello said she was “very much” excited to see the EPA hold a high-profile meeting on the class of chemicals that have contaminated the aquifer in her western Massachusetts city.
After the event was announced, she dashed off an email to the EPA, hoping to go to the meeting in Washington. “I sent this nosy little email, oh, we’re so excited about this summit,” Mello said.
The response from the EPA: Citizen groups such as hers would not be invited. “Because space will be limited at the summit, EPA has limited the invitation to federal partners, states, territories, tribes and representatives from national organizations,” the EPA wrote back to Mello, according to an email she shared with The Post.
Shaina Kasper, Vermont state director at the Toxics Action Center, said that the Westfield group was not alone. Of the at least eight community organizations that are part of the center's National PFAS Contamination Coalition that asked for invitations to the event, only one received one, Kasper said.
“We think that too many community groups were shut out of this event,” Kasper said.
The EPA said before the event that it will follow up Tuesday's meeting with other “community engagement" events because the first “quickly reached capacity.”
Laurie Valeriano, executive director at Toxic-Free Future, who did not attend the event, complained that an EPA livestream cut out before the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council had its chance to speak — but not before representatives from the FluoroCouncil, which represents fluorinated chemical manufacturers, weighed in. “It’s outrageous that the FluoroCouncil gets to play a leadership role on this issue given how they’ve contributed," Valeriano said.
During his time in office, Pruitt has met far more often with industry representatives than environmental groups, according to calendars released by the agency.
And blocking reporters from the conference was just the latest example of the sometimes contentious way his aides deal with reporters.
After Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last year, the EPA accused a Washington-based AP journalist of "reporting from the comfort of Washington" for a story on flooding at more than a dozen Superfund sites in Texas, failing to note in its scathing press release that the reporter was working with colleagues on the ground in Houston. And in another incident last August, two reporters for the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota wrote that they “were asked by representatives of Pruitt to leave the grounds” of the University of North Dakota during Pruitt's visit to the public school.
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— Pruitt watch: The EPA spent at least $9,600 to decorate Scott Pruitt's personal office with Smithsonian artwork and other items, including a refurbished desk, according to the Hill. The Smithsonian does not charge federal agencies for renting items, though it does for labor and delivery costs. All the costs were included in a detailed chart emailed to an agency staffer in the general counsel’s office last week. EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox defended the costs, telling The Hill that some of the expenditures do not count as costs for redecorating Pruitt’s office. “Every cabinet official gets $5,000 to furnish their office and we have spent $4,984.06," Wilcox said.
— Banks banks against shareholder resolutions: A former top energy adviser to President Trump is seeking to crack down on shareholder resolutions from activist investors looking to press large corporations on issues like climate change. George David Banks, former energy and environmental policy adviser to Trump, is leading a new campaign called the Main Street Investors. “The rise in low-fee passive investing has been a good thing for retail investors,” Banks said in a statement. “But as the size and influence of these massive institutional holders has grown, so too has their ability to drown-out the voices and interests of Main Street investors who, despite controlling the single largest pool of equity capital in the world, have no ability to influence the decisions these funds make on their behalf, with their money.”
The former White House climate adviser, who represented the United States at a U.N. climate conference in Germany last year following Trump's retreat from the Paris climate accord, resigned last February after past pot use prevented him from getting a permanent security clearance.
— Fresh from Hurricane Harvey, Houston rebuilds — in the flood plain: Houston starts to build anew in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the process is breeding anxiety about what new buildings and new storm seasons will bring. “A city chastened by disastrous flooding just months ago is trying to balance the need for new construction in a region short of housing with the civic fear that Houston is returning to its freewheeling ways,” The Post's Scott Wilson reports. “The construction in northwest Houston, which serves as something of a post-Harvey starting gun, is being built to new, stricter standards. Planners say those rules reflect both the local government’s commitment to avoid repeating mistakes and new federal weather predictions that anticipate even more severe periods of rain here for decades to come.”
— Gore goes to LA: The Climate Reality Project, chaired by former vice president Al Gore, announced this week that it will hold a climate leadership training in Los Angeles in August. The training is scheduled just weeks before a global climate summit California Gov. Jerry Brown is hosting in the state in September — and just months before Gore's trainees have the chance to put their campaigning skills to the test during the midterm elections in November.
— Water and carbon bills get go-ahead: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously passed on Tuesday two bipartisan bills — one on water infrastructure and another on carbon-capture technology.
— Storm watch: A cluster of humidity, hot air and clouds in the Caribbean Sea could develop into this hurricane season’s first storm, The Post’s Angela Fritz reports — or at the very least, it could turn into a major rain event for states east of Louisiana. The hurricane season officially starts June 1, but it is not uncommon for tropical storms to form in May.
— How coyotes conquered the continent: A new study in the journal ZooKeys reveals how coyotes were able to expand so thoroughly throughout the country. When European settlers began to kill large predators such as pumas and wolves in the United States, they left coyotes unchecked and able to expand from the western United States eastward. Today, “coyotes are newly established in every state, several Canadian provinces and are rapidly moving south of Mexico into Central America,” The Post’s Darryl Fears reports.
— Workers plugging geothermal wells as lava flows nearby: Lava from the erupting Kilauea Volcano began creeping Monday night onto the geothermal power plant site on Hawaii’s Big Island, a key source of the state’s power. And on Tuesday, authorities were racing to close off the production wells at the plant, capping off the 11th and last well, according to the Associated Press. Mike Kaleikini, senior director of Hawaii affairs for the Puna Geothermal Venture plant said the wells were “in a safe state,” and said there were additional plans to install metal plugs in the wells. Puna Geothermal had been shut down shortly after the volcanic activity began on May 3.
— BP cuts ahead: Oil giant BP is planning to cut 3 percent of its exploration and production jobs, the company said Tuesday. About 540 jobs of BP’s 18,000 in upstream workforce will be cut by the end of the year, Reuters reports.
Meanwhile, BP announced Tuesday it would suspend its work on the Rhum gas field in the North Sea over the United States threats to sanction companies working in Iran, according to the BBC. The British oil giant co-owns rights in the offshore gas field east of Scotland with the Iranian Oil Company.
— Tesla may get a Consumer Reports recommendation after all: Consumer Reports said it will retest the brakes on Tesla’s Model 3 electric sedan after chief executive Elon Musk promised to fix the issue, Reuters reports. Musk acknowledged the issue in a tweet following a negative review from the magazine that cited the car’s “big flaws” as reasons it would not get its thumbs-up.
— Blame game for rising gas prices: Democrats are looking to place the blame for a recent spike in gasoline prices on Trump, by suggesting it’s a direct result of his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
The Post’s Philip Bump explains: “It’s true that over the course of his presidency, gas prices have increased more than they had at the same point in the first terms of presidents Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. During Barack Obama’s first term, the increase was steeper — though that occurred fairly early in his first term, after which prices stabilized."
But: “It’s not clear how much this is a function of the Iran deal as opposed to, say, the normal increase seen for the summer months," Bump writes. "Trump’s announcement on the deal only happened a few weeks ago, and the upward trend began before that.”
- The House Natural Resources Committee holds a markup.
- The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies holds a hearing on NASA 2019 budget.
- The Partnership for Advancing an Inclusive Rural Energy Economy holds a livecast.
- The Environmental and Energy Study Institute and the American Biogas Council hold a briefing on Thursday.
- The Senate Appropriations Committee holds a markupof Energy and Water Development and Agriculture Appropriations Bills on Thursday.
- EIA holds its annual 2018 Energy Conference June 4-5.
— Turn on the sound: You are going to want to listen to this standoff between these two lynx filmed by a family in Ontario, according to the CBC.