microgen / istock

EPA Directs Employees Not to Talk to the Press

Agency faces criticism of hypocrisy after promising new era of transparency.

The Environmental Protection Agency is reminding employees not to engage with members of the media, sending a memorandum this week instructing them to deflect any press inquiries. 

The guidance came after EPA Administrator Michael Regan earlier this year sent employees a memo of his own pledging to bring transparency to the agency and reinstate a “fishbowl” environment. In that memo, however, Regan similarly instructed employees to follow EPA’s “internal deliberative processes” in dealing with the press. Still, the latest update from management irked watchdog groups who said the policy ran contrary to an ethos of transparency. 

The new memo came from EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics to remind employees of their responsibilities when contacted by a member of the press.

“Please remember that we are not authorized to answer press questions directly, and that OPPT (and EPA) have processes that should be followed should someone reach out to you,” said Alison Pierce, chief of staff to the office. 

Pierce directed employees to be friendly and courteous with reporters while insisting they contact the press office. The memo followed recent interest in OPPT after whistleblowers there came forward with allegations of meddling in their scientific work. Pierce noted there had been a “slight uptick” in the number of reporters contacting staff. 

Shortly after taking office, President Biden issued a memorandum creating a task force on scientific integrity. Among its mission topics was a directive to “identify effective practices regarding engagement of federal scientists, as well as contractors working on scientific matters for agencies, with news media.” House Democrats have pushed to codify protections for federal scientists, including by allowing them to freely discuss their work with the media if contacted.

In his April memo, Regan pledged to usher in a new era of openness for EPA employees. 

“As we emerge from a painful pandemic, restoring the public’s confidence is critical to meeting our mission to protect human health and the environment,” the administrator said. “With a dedication to open communication, fairness, and transparent engagement with the public, I’m confident we will succeed.”

Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which made the media policy memo public, said the policy was hypocritical. 

“Is EPA transparent, or is it still opaque?" Whitehouse said. “There should be an unambiguous policy that EPA scientists and other specialists should be able to answer a question from a member of the public or from a media outlet.”

PEER sent a letter to Regan on Thursday asking for a clarification in the policy. EPA did not respond to a request for comment. 

"It doesn’t surprise me at all, considering the latest news about that office," one EPA employee said of the policy not to respond to reporters when contacted by Government Executive. "They don’t want multiple people speaking for the Agency about an official matter, but employees generally have the right to speak as individuals giving a personal perspective or opinion."