Journalists banned from entering EPA meeting on contaminated drinking water

EPA chief Scott Pruitt thinks addressing the issue is a ‘national priority’

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Tuesday 22 May 2018 19:21 BST
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt spoke at a summit on contaminated water from which several members of the press were barred.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt spoke at a summit on contaminated water from which several members of the press were barred. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has shut out media from a meeting led by chief Scott Pruitt who discussed the widespread level of contaminants in drinking water.

Mr Pruitt has said the issue is a "national priority” but EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox barred reporters from entering and reporting about it, saying that the media were not invited, according to the Associated Press. When the news agency's reporter asked to speak to a public affairs person, the security guards grabbed the reporter by the shoulders and shoved her forcibly out of the building, she reported.

Others shut out included CNN, the environmental-focused news organisation E&E, and MLive, a Michigan-based news outlet. Mr Wilcox told The Independent that “this was simply an issue of the room reaching capacity, which reporters were aware of prior to the event. We were able to accommodate 10 reporters, provided a livestream for those we could not accommodate, and were unaware of the individual situation that has been reported”.

He did not specify which media outlets were allowed into the room. It was also not immediately clear whether reporters who were asked to leave the building at the agency's headquarters in Washington DC, had access to the livestream or whether it was only available in an adjacent room. The EPA did not immediately respond again with further comment.

CNN said in a statement that its reporter also was turned away from covering the event "after multiple attempts to attend". The network said: "we understand the importance of an open and free press and we hope the EPA does, too".

The hearing discussed the contaminants known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl which are commonly used in nonstick coatings on kitchenware and the foam used by firefighters. Mr Pruitt reportedly said the contaminants have made their way to water systems nationwide, including several dangerous levels in systems near military bases and industries.

The substances can lead to developmental defects in infants and other health problems. Mr Pruitt drew questions from Republican and Democratic members of Congress last week after emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed an unidentified White House official calling a pending federal toxicological report on the chemicals a "potential public-relations nightmare" with an attempt to intervene, Politico first reported. ​

Rob Allen, the mayor of the small town of Hoosick Falls, New York, was in the meeting, known as the National Leadership Summit, as a local representative.

Mr Allen said said there were some members of the media in the room, but was not sure on the exact number or which outlets they represented. He also said there will still some seats available ahead of the introductory speech from Mr Pruitt.

The mayor also commented that he noticed a theme throughout the day’s sessions which he attended: “the need for funding” and the “desire for national leadership” on eliminating or reducing these contaminants.

He also noted that EPA and other leadership speaking at the sessions agreed that there needs to be “clear and concise federal guidelines” on the matter. Mr Pruitt also pledged to work on establishing a maximum allowable level for the chemicals in drinking water.

The administrator did tweet what looked like an action plan, writing that the EPA would “examine everything we know about the” chemicals in drinking water, use existing regulations on “hazardous materials” to combat the problem, and make “groundwater cleanup recommendations” to contaminated sites later this year.

It does not appear that Mr Pruitt is proposing additional regulations. He and his staff have been de-regulating as part of an apparent plan to hand control over environmental matters over to individual states. The agency has dismantled large pieces of legislation like the Clean Power Plan, which would have reduced carbon emissions from power plants in the US, and having Mr Trump begin the withdrawal process from the global Paris Agreement on climate change. California has filed 26 lawsuits against the Trump administration, many targeting environmental issues.

While state representatives, the chemical industry, and environmental groups were allowed to enter the meeting room and even tweet about it. However, the general public was not allowed in either.

One group, called Michigan Demands Action, has launched a social media protest according to MLive and the Grand Rapids Press news outlets.

Create a sign, include your location, something to do with water and create your message for the world to see!! We want to spread [awareness] on how this has impacted our community and our state so join us let the world know about this chemical!,” the post read.

The Michigan city of Flint has been dealing with massive amounts of lead in its drinking water for nearly four years, causing health and developmental problems in children in particular and forcing several residents to resort to bottled water for all their needs or move out of the community.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in