How does U.S. EPA respond to news media inquiries during a big environmental crisis like the Gulf oil spill or the Charleston, WV, drinking water crisis? There's a plan that calls for timely, accurate information — but also information that is approved.
Environmental journalists have been chronically frustrated with EPA's press operation. In response to a recent Freedom of Information request, EPA told the WatchDog its only guidelines for media relations were the Ruckelshaus "fishbowl" memo and its scientific integrity policy. That's not entirely true.
EPA has a "Crisis Communications Plan," approved back on January 15, 2009, that mandates giving "understandable, timely, accurate, and consistent information to the public." The WatchDog learned about it from an EPA employee who did not clear the disclosure with the press office. The plan emphasizes coordination — because a lot of agencies must work together on an environmental incident of national significance. The EPA plan fits within a wider federal plan called the National Response Framework — meant to address everything from earthquakes to terrorist attacks.
But that laudable emphasis on coordination also leads to strong message control. The plan says "EPA will contribute to the overall unified message of the response and support external affairs activities" under the National Response Framework. EPA must "Review and approve national messages in coordination with the Leadership Cadre."
Responsibility for maintaining and implementing the plan at EPA is focused on the Associate Administrator for the Office of Public Affairs (a position currently held by Tom Reynolds). It is only activated during crises of a certain magnitude.
The plan mandates informing the public "by working with print and broadcast media and posting information on the Web" among other methods. It establishes a hierarchy of spokespersons, emphasizing one Public Information Officer (PIO) attached to the "Incident Command." "The PIO handles media and public inquiries, emergency public information and warnings, rumor monitoring and response, media monitoring, and disseminates accurate, concise and timely information related to the incident, particularly regarding information on public health and protection," the plan states.
The Crisis Communications Plan was not among the documents provided by EPA in response to the WatchDog's recent Freedom of Information request on policies for communication with news media.
- "EPA National Approach to Response Crisis Communications Plan," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Approved January 15, 2009, EPA Order Classification No. 2010.
- "Developing Risk Communication Plans for Drinking Water Contamination Incidents," Office of Water (U.S. EPA), April 2013.
- "Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), 2014.
- Previous Story: WatchDog of July 1, 2015.