EPA Clarifies How Advisers May Speak To Media Amid Transparency Concerns

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By Anthony Adragna

Dec. 1 — The Environmental Protection Agency has clarified that members of its scientific advisory panels may speak with the media or public about their recommendations and activities without prior agency clearance except during panel deliberations.

Advisory committee members are free to respond to broader inquiries as private citizens and are expected to be available to respond to press inquiries except during the deliberative phase of activities when the panels are preparing their advice to the agency, according to a memorandum posted on the agency's website.

During deliberations, members of the independent panels should speak with a designated federal official before speaking to the media or public in order to ensure federal record-keeping and other requirements are met, according to the memorandum, dated Nov. 18.

Those independent panels include the Science Advisory Board, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the Advisory Council on Clean Air Compliance Analysis.

The agency issued the clarification in response to environmental and media watchdog groups. In August, those groups questioned whether the agency had placed constraints on the ability of scientists and panel members to speak without prior authorization and said such a policy would undermine transparency efforts at the EPA.

Those concerns stemmed from an April memorandum from Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, chief of staff to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, that urged panel members to “refrain” from directly responding to external requests and refer those requests to the committee's designated federal official.

Ensures Agency Transparency

The Union of Concerned Scientists said in a blog post responding to the clarifying guidance that the EPA was ensuring open access to scientists and transparency from within the agency.

“By clarifying the initial memorandum and recognizing that it may have gone too far, the EPA is doing the right thing,” Michael Halpern, program manager for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote. “If adopted more widely, the constraints could have curtailed public access to thousands of subject matter experts who freely share their expertise to inform critical decisions about our health and environment.”

The EPA has disputed the characterization of the original memo and said it was merely attempting to ensure scientific advisers followed long-standing policies on outside communications.

Advisory panels hold public meetings, consider questions from the public at the meetings and record all committee actions for public distribution.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anthony Adragna in Washington at aadragna@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

The policy clarification on interacting with the media is available at http://1.usa.gov/1v5Lpie.