transparency

EPA allows experts to comment on oil spill; this looks like progress

We believe in giving credit where credit is due. And so after our recent outrage about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's news conferences where reporters were forbidden to identify government officials who briefed journalists, we today were pleasantly surprised by an EPA news conference that's back in the real world.

Specifically, when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson did a phone-in presser on the use of dispersants at BP's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the notice specifically listed the names and titles of lower-ranking EPA staffers who would appear and provide information to the public: Paul Anasta, assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Research and Development; and Dana Tulis, acting director of EPA's Office of Emergency Management. Jane Lubchenco, the Department of Commerce undersecretary in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also was on the call, along with Dave Westerholm, director of NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration.

Thank you, EPA! This is as it should be: Public officials appear at a news conference tell the journalists what they know (and who they are). Then, that information gets transmitted to the public.

Public officials who make statements to the public need to be held accountable for what they say, which can't happen when they journalists don't even know their names, as happened at the press conference last week on EPA's new rules for handling toxic coal ash. This was highlighted in an excellent story about the whole flap by Curtis Brainerd of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Let's hope today's news conference is the start of a trend.

-- Robert McClure

Obama's supposed transparency again belied by hush-hush press conference rules at EPA

Osha Gray Davidson's post on the Society of Environmental Journalists' listserv was at least one funny thing that could be written about the very unfunny way U.S. Environmental Protection Agency squelched open and honest communication with the public today:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of  openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
 

-- Senior administration official.

The quote, of course, is from President Obama, who issued the seemingly sweeping statement of support for government transparency shortly after taking office. As we've pointed out before, though, at least one agency is clearly failing to live up to this mandate: The U.S. EPA.

Today the agency, for the second time in three months, held a news conference on a major announcement and ordered reporters not to reveal the names of EPA officials addressing the public through the news media.

What is the meaning of this? Who are they afraid of?

The first incident happened when U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson held a news conference upon the release of the Obama administration's proposed annual budget in early February. Reporters who phoned in, their phones on mute so they could not object, were told that any EPA assistant administrators or others who spoke were "on background," meaning reporters were free to quote these officials, but not to identify them.Journalists were told if they stayed on the call or at the news conference they were agreeing to these rules. Is this what democracy looks like?

Obama administration pounds chest about transparency, but will have to better than this

The other day the Obama administration's "Chief Information Officer" -- or CIO... isn't that clever? -- was in Seattle decrying a "culture of faceless unaccountability" in government. His boast:

"This is part of the President's agenda: to make sure we’re hardwiring transparency into the culture of the federal government."

What a bunch of horse patootie.

At least that's the way Vivek Kundra's chest-beating looks from the trenches, for me and for other journalists trying to get information from the federal government, and particularly from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Kundra's statement in front of a geek-heavy audience in Seattle is worth examining now because today kicks off Sunshine Week, the annual exercise in which open-government activists yap it up with fellow citizens about the importance of our democratic government being truly transparent with citizens. As a journalist, a fair amount of what I do is find out what government is up to, and tell my fellow citizens.

Now,  Kundra's statement about Obama's agenda may be correct. But I'm here to tell you, friends, that the agenda ain't trickling down to the trenches.

Want proof? In this post today I'll detail how the EPA simply failed to engage with us for a recent InvestigateWest story of great nationwide importance.

Obama administration tries to sell itself as more open and transparent; don't believe it

Friends, it's Sunshine Week, the annual push by those who would democratize our government by opening up our government to make our case. So Dateline Earth is taking a one-week hiatus while I populate InvestigateWest's From The Field blog with tales of how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is failing to engage with me and other journalists; how the EPA routinely drags out simple requests for public records; how the Obama administration is going to court to fight numerous requests for public records; and how the Obama administration is no better than George W. Bush's when it comes to squelching government scientists. Finally, courtesy of the Society of Environmental Journalists, we'll provide a list of important information sources for citizens, citizen journalists and yes even full-time journalists to use in prying information out of the government. It's all over at our From The Field blog.

-- Robert McClure  

Will EPA head see through her promise of more transparency?

[caption id="attachment_1442" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="EPA head Lisa Jackson"]EPA head Lisa Jackson[/caption]

If you've been watching the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as long as I have, you have to be hopeful when you hear Administrator Lisa Jackson saying she's going to increase transparency at the agency. And it's good news that she seems to be hinting that the agency will be taking on a stronger role in regulating stormwater, our most widespread form of water pollution.

Jackson's initiative, detailed in a piece by the pro-transparency group OMBWatch, is based on a July 2 memo from Jackson to agency employees regarding how they handle their duties under the Clean Water Act. OMBWatch notes:

The new memo from Jackson only addresses enforcement of and compliance with one statute, the Clean Water Act. No such memo or other instructions have been released regarding transparency in the enforcement of the numerous other environmental statutes under EPA's jurisdiction.  ...

 The memo continues an emerging trend at EPA of greater transparency – at least rhetorically. Shortly after her confirmation as head of EPA, Jackson released a memo to all employees calling for greater transparency, followed by a memo emphasizing a restoration of scientific integrity.

Will this lead to actual transparency? That's one we'll have to watch and see about. For instance, will Jackson order that responses to all Freedom of Information Act requests, once fullfilled, be posted online for all to see?