SEJ Urges Agency Openness During National Spill Crises

July 1, 2015

When the toxic chemical MCHM spilled into the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginia residents in 2014, reporters had trouble getting federal officials on the phone. When oil from the Deepwater Horizon rig washed up on Gulf shores, reporters had trouble getting near the dying pelicans. When post-Katrina measurements of toxics in Louisiana water and sediments were made, U.S. EPA delayed releasing the data.

Does government openness help or hurt the public during "spills of national significance"? A newly developing federal policy could determine how much the public learns how fast. Through its Freedom of Information Task Force, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) is urging more openness.

Journalists and advocacy groups got a look at the Spills of National Significance (SONS) Draft Communications Strategy in preparation for a forum June 8, 2015, at the Interior Department. The lead agency in drafting the plan was the U.S. Coast Guard, which has statutory authority for handling many spills of oil and chemicals into water bodies.

At the forum, and in a June 30 letter, SEJ urged SONS communicators to release data fully and promptly, to acknowledge uncertainties and gaps, and to give journalists good access to officials, experts and places.

The initial draft presented before the meeting emphasized message control more than openness, though officials stressed that it would be revised in light of comments.

During a 2013 seminar, "principal officials from multiple Federal agencies identified the need to align and coordinate messaging and communications efforts as one of three major interagency action items," the draft stated. "'Speaking with One Voice' from the field up to the highest levels of government is critical to maintaining credibility and ensuring that the most accurate, consistent information is released to the media and public."

"As we said at the June 8 event, too often we journalists have found that government agencies are afraid of providing conflicting information after a disaster, especially if it’s coming from their own scientific experts," SEJ's letter said. "We believe the public would be better served – and would rather know, in any case – when there are uncertainties or incomplete information, rather than being denied answers.  As we said, being honest about what you know and don’t know enhances the government’s credibility more than trying to hide uncertainties or conflicting information."

The letter was signed by SEJ President Jeff Burnside and Freedom of Information Task Force Chair Tim Wheeler. The June 8 forum, "Facilitating Communication and Journalism During Environmental Disasters," was organized by University of New Hampshire's Center for Spills and Environmental Hazards.

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