EPA Experts Increasingly Shut Out of Public Statements, Some Complain

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By Brian Dabbs

EPA political leadership is occasionally inserting new data and other information into public statements without final review from career policy specialists, EPA officials told Bloomberg BNA.

That strategy marks a departure from tradition from prior Democratic and Republican administrations, and career EPA officials told Bloomberg BNA the new protocol is sowing resentment among program offices staffed with career workers.

The officials also describe recent public statements on pollution discharges and other subjects as misleading and incompatible with extensive agency research.

Internal agency emails obtained by Bloomberg BNA back up those claims. EPA media representatives did not respond to multiple Bloomberg BNA requests for comment.

Dating back decades, the EPA political team has always had the power to tailor public statements to advance broad policy objectives. But current officials and past communications officers say the team under Administrator Scott Pruitt is taking that authority to unprecedented levels. Pruitt’s team is marginalizing the agency’s program specialists to advance an agenda that prioritizes industry over environmental protections, those current and former officials contend.

EPA political staff have aggressively disputed criticisms of the agency’s agenda. Pruitt has said he aims to return the agency to its core mission of protecting the environment, rather than advancing political positions on climate change and imposing what he says are onerous regulations on industry.

Inserted Data

A recent flashpoint came after the agency pledged to reconsider a regulation on power plant discharges of toxic pollutants in wastewater.

The EPA put industry compliance on hold in mid-April for effluent limitations guidelines (RIN:2040-AF14), which would limit discharges for more than 1,000 mostly coal-fired power plants. Past Obama administration agency memos on the rule said it would reduce arsenic, mercury, and other toxins by forcing investment in pollution controls and associated infrastructure. Those pollutants, which ultimately make their way into bodies of water, cause cancer, lower IQs among children, and harm wildlife, according to the EPA.

That would cost industry an average $480 million annually, the agency has said for years.

But an April 13 press release, which announced the reconsideration process, highlighted the rule’s effect on industry, adding that compliance would cost an average of $1.2 billion per year over its first five years.

The release also reiterated the $480 million annual estimate for the life of the program. But the addition of the $1.2 billion figure in the press release, highlighting the most expensive years of the program, sparked an outcry from officials at the EPA’s Office of Water, which devised the guidelines.

“The inclusion of the $1.2 billion figure in the first paragraph of the press release without key contextual information is misleading and departs from this standard practice of regulatory cost estimation,” an Office of Water official told EPA media relations officer Tricia Lynn in an April 18 email obtained by Bloomberg BNA.

“Last week’s EPA press release could have explained that capital costs of $1.2 billion could be incurred in the first five years but that costs drop sharply to under $300 million on average annually after this expenditure.”

The EPA didn’t respond to a Bloomberg BNA request for details on the $1.2 billion figure. Another email obtained showed the Office of Water didn’t know the press release included the $1.2 billion figure until after its release to the public.

‘New Press Approach’

The April 18 email also said the news release could have said that average household electricity costs are only expected to rise by $1.42 annually as a result of the rule.

“Typically the press office collaborates with the program office on the content of press releases, so we were surprised in this case to see the cost information expressed this way without collaboration with [Office of Water],” said the email, which Bloomberg BNA is not disclosing to protect the identities of those involved.

Neither Lynn or other members of the media relations team responded to the email, according to a high-ranking EPA official who asked to remain anonymous.

“The key issue here is that the new press approach provides no opportunity for the program experts to see what the final response to press questions [is] or the final press releases are before they are published,” the anonymous official told Bloomberg BNA. “That means that future press releases and responses to press questions may not be accurate.”

Another high-ranking EPA official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said those experiences are shared by others outside the Office of Water.

“The collective observation is there are changes that are made at the political level, and those are not sent back to the program office for validation,” that official told Bloomberg BNA. “Once it’s in their black box, they’ve got it.”

Range of Pitfalls

Those current EPA officials and past communications officers said the administrator’s office, media relations team and the program specialists traditionally collaborate extensively to publish news releases.

An EPA official during former President George W. Bush’s administration, who also requested anonymity, said: “During Bush, press releases were reviewed with the program offices. If there was a disagreement, that was talked through. As far as specific figures go, I can’t even think of an example of the administrator’s office using different data from the program office.”

Inserting data without a back-and-forth with program specialists, however, creates a range of pitfalls, Liz Purchia, acting associate administrator at the EPA Office of Public Affairs during the Obama administration under former Administrator Gina McCarthy, told Bloomberg BNA.

“It may give [the political leadership] a short-term win, but it will make the program office mad and will lead to additional scrutiny from the press, stakeholders and members on the Hill,” she said. “The program staff are the experts. They know nuances of the program and the history of policies that the political office would have no concept of understanding.”

One of the EPA officials also said the administrator’s office is now vetting all press inquires before allowing the media relations team to send the requests to the program offices.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington at bdabbs@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com

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