On Tuesday morning, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt greeted a crowed of nearly 200 at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. The attendees were there for a national summit on polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances — also known as PFAS, a class of chemicals linked to potentially serious health impacts with long-term exposure.
But absent from the summit’s introductory statement were reporters from several news outlets, including the Associated Press, CNN, and E&E News. One reporter with the Associated Press was allegedly forcibly removed from the EPA headquarters after trying to enter to report on the summit.
— SEJ.ORG (@sejorg) May 22, 2018
The altercation reportedly occurred after EPA security told the reporter that they could not enter the building to report on the summit. When the reporter asked to speak to a public affairs representative with the EPA, a security guard reportedly “grabbed the reporter by the shoulders and shoved her forcibly out of the EPA building.”
Other reporters were allowed to attend the event — breaking with the EPA’s history under the Trump administration of not inviting reporters to cover agency events or announcements live — but were asked to leave after the first hour, which included introductory remarks by Pruitt as well as an explanation of the science of PFAS from the director of the EPA’s Office of Pollution Protection and Toxics and a representative from the American Chemistry Council, the main trade association for the chemical industry.
Tuesday’s events add to a growing list of antagonistic exchanges between the EPA and the news media. In September of last year, the EPA’s press office sent out a press release titled “EPA Response To The AP’s Misleading Story,” which accused AP reporter Michael Biesecker of writing an “incredibly misleading story” about Superfund sites and Hurricane Harvey. The EPA did not, however, contradict any facts in Biesecker’s story.
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) September 3, 2017
The EPA’s press office has also taken an aggressive approach towards answering questions from the media, particularly from outlets that are either critical or aggressively value-neutral about the administration’s agenda.
In response to questions about Pruitt’s use of a personal email for official government work, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox last week told a reporter form E&E News that they “can use this thing called Google” to find previous stories written about the subject, arguing that the issue was “old news.”
However, the article that E&E News eventually published included new information about Pruitt’s use of a personal email that had not been previously reported by other outlets.
Perhaps the EPA considers this a professional way to respond to a news reporter asking an agency official a legitimate question. I wonder how many other public affairs professionals would agree. FYI here is the entirely legitimate E&E News story. Link: https://t.co/njeLI9PZkg pic.twitter.com/BiT1WOIPeJ
— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) May 15, 2018
Under Pruitt, the EPA has also consistently attempted to bar media from attending agency events.
In internal agency emails made public as part of a Freedom of Information lawsuit by the Sierra Club, political appointees frequently discuss plans to limit public questions at events with Pruitt, as well as limit information about where and when Pruitt will be making appearances, apparently in an attempt to limit media access to the administrator. In one instance, the EPA’s Wilcox went so far as to threaten to call the police on a reporter who was attempting to cover a meeting between Pruitt and North Dakota politicians.
The agency also regularly bars certain media outlets from covering agency announcements. On April 3, for instance, when Pruitt announced his intention to roll back fuel efficiency standards promulgated under the Obama administration, the EPA attempted to only allow television access to Fox News, barring other networks (Fox News alerted the other networks to this fact and established a pool allowing the other networks equal access to the event). Meanwhile, outlets like Politico, Buzzfeed, and the Hill were not invited to the event.
The EPA did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment about reporters being banned from Tuesday’s PFAS summit, nor about allegations that a security guard had forcibly removed the AP reporter.
EPA spokesman Wilcox told a reporter for the Hill that it was simply an issue of the room reaching capacity, which reporters were aware of prior to the event.”
NEW: EPA statement on AP reporter being removed this am pic.twitter.com/0UPWN2250v
— Miranda Green (@mirandacgreen) May 22, 2018
According to the Hill, however, there were several empty chairs during the event from reporters who chose to watch it via livestream instead.
In response to the incident, the Sierra Club released a statement condemning the agency’s treatment of the press.
“Scott Pruitt is incapable of running the EPA without trampling on the health of American families and the freedom of the press in the process,” Sierra Club Resist campaign director Maura Crowley said. “If Pruitt truly has nothing to hide he should be welcoming reporters with open arms, not ejecting them for trying to do their jobs.”