West Virginia Scientists to EPA, CDC: Allow Your Scientists to Speak

January 24, 2014
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

UPDATE: See responses below from CDC and EPA officials.

This morning, two dozen West Virginia scientists wrote to the CDC and EPA to urge the two agencies to give more freedom to their scientists to communicate with the press and public, especially during emergencies like the ongoing water contamination crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of West Virginians. “Our communities have suffered with inadequate, and sometimes conflicting, information about both long term and short term risks of exposure to the chemical,” wrote the scientists.   “If the government had been more forthcoming about what is not known about the leaked chemicals, citizens and local officials would have been able to make better choices about the actions needed to protect their families and communities.”

On January 15, Ken Ward, Jr. of the Charleston Gazette reported that EPA took nearly a week to publicly comment on the chemical spill, refusing repeated requests for interviews and failing to show up at any government briefings. Then yesterday, January 23, the reporter finally received answers to questions he had submitted to the agency—on January 15. (Full disclosure: former UCS Scientific Integrity Program Director Francesca Grifo recently left UCS to become the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Officer).

Jeff Heath, of CMS Oilfield Services, puts water in a bucket for a resident affected by the Elk River chemical spill. As more than 300,000 people were left without water, the EPA and CDC were refusing interviews with their scientists. Photo: West Virginia National Guard

Jeff Heath, of CMS Oilfield Services, puts water in a bucket for a resident affected by the Elk River chemical spill. As more than 300,000 people were left without water, the EPA and CDC were refusing interviews with their scientists. Photo: West Virginia National Guard

The CDC’s actions were even worse. First, the agency failed to adequately explain how it arrived at a safety threshold of one part per million, and didn’t disclose that the tests it relied upon were on a pure form of the chemical, not the crude form that was leaked. Second, CDC officials told pregnant women to avoid the water—two days after officials assured the public it was safe for all. After state and water company officials told citizens not to worry about lingering chemical odors, they learned that the CDC had advised flushing all pipes until the odor was gone. Even the governor, in a press conference, said he didn’t know about the CDC’s recommendation.

All of this comes from an administration that has made scientific integrity and openness a priority, at least on paper. CDC, EPA, and several other government agencies have markedly improved media policies and scientific integrity policies. And both the CDC and EPA made policy updates that are supposed to improve the ability of government scientists to share their expertise with the public and the press.

But while these policies are technically in effect, and agency leaders have made strong commitments to transparency, the public affairs departments don’t seem to have gotten the memo, and scientists don’t feel comfortable speaking out of turn, if at all.

That’s a problem. In emergency situations, people deserve immediate access to the best available information, even if it’s tentative or incomplete. UCS’s Gretchen Goldman laid out this argument succinctly in a blog post on Tuesday:

“In times of emergencies — especially when the public health and safety may be at risk — it is essential that we let scientists speak. In situations like these, accurate and timely information needs to get to the public and allowing scientists to speak to the media without prior clearance from public affairs or other officials can allow for more comprehensive information to reach those who need it. Public affairs officers can play a coordinating role and can be informed of scientists’ communication to the media and public, but they should not act as gatekeepers that compromise our ability to understand the threats that citizens face.”

The scientists’ letter echoes criticisms from two journalism societies that the agencies contributed to public confusion and concern by repeatedly refusing interview requests and failing to disclose what they knew—and just as importantly, what they didn’t know—about the risk posed by the spilled chemicals.  In a similar letter sent earlier this week, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) wrote:

“The lack of openness during this crisis by government officials and agencies has aggravated an alarming situation and left many people doubting the competence and credibility of the people in whom their welfare is entrusted…Too often, in the interest of preventing panic or confusion, government agencies clamp down on their communication with the news media and the public. As happened in this case, a parsimonious public-affairs strategy all too often backfires, feeding people’s fear and distrust of government.”

Volunteers at St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Charleston, WV distribute bottled water during the water crisis. Photo: WVUMC via Flickr

Volunteers at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Charleston, WV distribute bottled water during the water crisis. Photo: WVUMC via Flickr

This last part—about credibility—is important. Suspicion of the EPA in West Virginia is already high enough, and closing ranks during a public health crisis doesn’t create trust. Better access to agency experts would have reduced confusion and fear about water safety in West Virginia and could have built confidence in two agencies that need to safeguard their reputations as credible sources.

Encouragingly, CDC Public Affairs Director Barbara Reynolds responded to the SEJ/SPJ letter, stating the CDC officials “share your sense of urgency and commit to examining our processes to fulfill our commitment to good public health.” I hope that this examination will be meaningful and include public input. The agency also acknowledged that it should have warned pregnant women to continue not drinking the water sooner than it did, and could have better communicated uncertainties around the risks posed by the chemical spill.

To date, there has been no public response to the letter from EPA.

The silence comes at a price.

What’s particularly galling—and I’m not the first one to point this out—is a suspicion that the federal response might have been a whole lot different had the spill happened in the Hudson or Charles and not the Elk River—and left 300,000 people in New York or Boston without water for several days, and with continued uncertainty about health risk.

To be clear, because of the inadequacy of chemical safety laws, we know very little about tens of thousands of chemicals used by industry. But West Virginians would have benefited from hearing precisely how little is known.

I recognize that the CDC and EPA have a responsibility to minimize contradictory statements and, as Reynolds put it, “reach that critical balance between accuracy and timely release of information.” But they can do so without restricting access to agency experts.

Sometimes, a simple “We don’t know enough at this point to tell you if your water is safe” is information enough.

UPDATE, January 24: A few hours after this post was published, I received the following response from CDC Public Affairs Director Barbara Reynolds (who is referenced above). I appreciate the agency’s stated commitment to timely and complete response, scientist accessibility, and interest in ongoing dialogue. We know that there are many great people at CDC who work hard to get information to the public, and look forward to working with the agency to ensure that their policies are fully put into practice:

Dear Mr. Halpern,

Your January 24 email offers us the opportunity to explore CDC’s support role during a state’s public health response. In all instances, CDC’s overarching communication responsibility is to provide its scientific information to response officials, the public and media during a crisis.

CDC stands ready 24/7 to support local jurisdictions or states during a public health crisis, and that includes sharing available scientific information and making public health recommendations.

Thank you for acknowledging our initial response letter to the Society of Environmental Journalists. Please allow me to say again: CDC agrees that early, complete, and on-the-record information released to the public is the best way to foster confidence in evolving health recommendations.

In keeping with the desire for a culture of openness, by agency policy, CDC scientists may speak to members of the press about their work. Crises of this type create complex questions that deserve thoughtful, consistent and timely answers. Without question, the uncertainty inherent in some events is justifiably frustrating and this should have been readily acknowledged. Again, our commitment is to work to reach the critical balance between accuracy and timely release of information.

I appreciate you sharing our response with your members.

Sincerely,

Barbara Reynolds, Ph.D.

Director, Division of Public Affairs

UPDATE, January 30: Last night, five days after sending the scientists’ letter to EPA, I received the following response from EPA Associate Administrator for External Affairs Tom Reynolds:

Dear Mr. Halpern,

Thank you for your email regarding transparency and media access, two issues the Environmental Protection Agency — whose mission is rooted in science and dedicated to protecting public health and safeguarding the environment — takes very seriously.

As with any emergency response, EPA’s first priority is working with state and local officials to ensure the safety of the public. In the case of the West Virginia chemical spill, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection is the lead agency responsible for overseeing and coordinating the response activities. EPA has offered support and continues to work closely with the state and other federal and state agencies.

EPA began receiving and responding to media inquiries regarding the spill on January 10. Since then, we have responded directly and in a timely fashion to inquiries from more than two dozen media outlets, providing information on a wide range of issues, including the agency’s role in the response, known information about the chemicals spilled, and EPA’s regulatory authorities.

As we have throughout the spill response, EPA remains committed to transparency and helping reporters and the public understand the potential risks associated with the spill, the various roles of state, local and federal governments, as well as the role of the company involved, in responding to an environmental disaster.

Regards,

Tom Reynolds

Environmental Protection Agency

Associate Administrator for External Affairs

Unfortunately, Mr. Reynolds sidesteps the substance of the letter’s request—that scientists be able to speak to the press and the public without interference. Unlike in the CDC’s response above, there is no affirmation of scientists’ rights to speak to the press, as well as no commitment to examining the agency’s own practices to improve responsiveness.

Instead, he intimates that agency employees should defer to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the lead agency responding to the disaster, in ensuring public safety. During normal times, this is unacceptable. During a crisis, it is irresponsible. EPA can simultaneously support state and local officials while sharing its experts with the public. In the hours and days that West Virginians were left without an adequate response from EPA (and CDC and DEP) scientists, they were denied knowledge that could have helped them to make more informed personal health decisions. As noted above, Ken Ward, who has been reporting tirelessly for the Charleston Gazette on the spill, had to wait several days for the EPA to respond to his questions.

EPA has many, many toxicologists and exposure scientists who can help the public understand risk. The EPA has a responsibility to make them available. Bottling them up in bureaucracy does a disservice to the public and undermines the agency’s public health mission. Importantly, the agency’s internal policies affirm scientists’ right to speak out. The agency needs to turn this policy into practice.