EPA attacks news agency, reporter for coverage of flooded Texas hazardous waste sites

Scott Pruitt's team cites Breitbart article to support accusations.

The Associated Press reported September 2, 2017, that the EPA had yet to inspect Superfund sites in Houston area already accessed by AP reporters. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jason Dearen
The Associated Press reported September 2, 2017, that the EPA had yet to inspect Superfund sites in Houston area already accessed by AP reporters. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jason Dearen

A day after their boss essentially called reporters cowards for their coverage of Hurricane Harvey, the Environmental Protection Agency criticized an Associated Press reporter for his coverage of the agency’s response to flooded hazardous waste sites in southeast Texas.

In a press release titled “EPA Response To The AP’s Misleading Story,” the EPA characterized the Associated Press’ decision to publish an article suggesting the agency was not being responsive to the effects of Harvey on Superfund sites as irresponsible, arguing it “creates panic and politicizes the hard work of first responders.”

The EPA accused Associated Press reporter Michael Biesecker, who co-authored the article, of “reporting from the comfort of Washington” and having the “audacity” to imply that the EPA was not being aggressive enough in inspecting the Superfund sites. However, the agency, in its press release, did not dispute any facts in the current version of the AP article.

During a visit to Houston on Saturday, President Donald Trump suggested the news media was too afraid to do dangerous reporting in the stricken area. And yet the Associated Press reported Saturday that it had accessed seven Superfund sites in and around Houston and found that all had been inundated with water, in some cases many feet deep. The Superfund program was established in 1980 to clean up hazardous waste sites left behind by industry.

Biesecker shared a byline on the article with AP reporter Jason Dearen. The news agency also noted that one of its writers, Jay Reeves, contributed to the report and that Biesecker reported from Washington. Dearen toured several flooded Superfund sites in the Houston area as part of his reporting for the article.

The EPA said in a separate press release Saturday that aerial imagery showed 13 of the 41 designated Superfund sites in the Houston area were flooded by Harvey and were “experiencing possible damage” due to the storm. Of these sites, the EPA said just two have been inspected and will not require emergency cleanup, although they plan to conduct additional sampling in the area.

The remaining eleven sites “have not been accessible by response personnel,” the EPA said. The Associated Press reported Saturday that its journalists used a boat to examine the condition of one flooded Houston-area Superfund site, and was able to check on other sites with a vehicle or on foot.

“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,” Associated Press Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Sally Buzbee said in a statement Sunday. “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.”

In its press release on the Associated Press’ article, EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman said “we have a team of experts on the ground working with our state and local counterparts responding to Hurricane Harvey. Anything to the contrary is yellow journalism.” Prior to joining the EPA’s communications team, Bowman served as director of issue and advocacy communications for the American Chemistry Council, the primary trade group for the U.S. chemical industry.

President Donald Trump is notorious for attacking individual reporters in his speeches and tweets as part of an effort to generate distrust of the news media among the American public. But it is very rare, if not unprecedented, for a federal agency to specifically target an individual reporter in a press release.

In the press release, the EPA also cited a Breitbart article to attack Biesecker about a previous article he authored about a meeting between EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris. Using Pruitt’s schedule as a reference, the AP reported the meeting between Pruitt and Liveris lasted for about a half-hour at a Houston hotel. But in a correction, the AP noted that a spokesperson for the EPA told AP that the meeting listed on the schedule was canceled, though Pruitt and Liveris did have a “brief introduction in passing.”

Article updated to include statement from Associated Press’ senior vice president and executive editor.