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What prompted the EPA to attack an AP reporter over an accurate Harvey story?

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Eric Wemple reports in the Washington Post:

The Environmental Protection Agency is all over Michael Biesecker, a reporter for the Associated Press. His reading habits, for instance. “We are able to see who opens our emails,” says an EPA official, referring to press-release blasts sent out by the agency. “Michael very rarely opens a positive story about [EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt. He only opens stories where he tries to create problems.”

Scrutiny of Biesecker’s press-release consumption amped up in the summer months, after a significant dustup between the two organizations. In late June, Biesecker reported that Pruitt had “met privately with the chief executive of Dow Chemical shortly before reversing his agency’s push to ban a widely used pesticide after health studies showed it can harm children’s brains, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.”

Except that the private meeting didn’t really happen, though it was indeed listed on a schedule obtained by the AP. Scheduling conflicts prevented it from taking place. The AP ran a correction stating, in part, “A spokeswoman for the EPA says the meeting listed on the schedule was canceled, though Pruitt and [Dow Chemical CEO Andrew] Liveris did have a ‘brief introduction in passing.’”

Along with the correction, the AP ran a new story with more information about the non-meeting: “The EPA did not respond to inquiries about the scheduled meeting before the AP story was published and later did not state on the record that the meeting had been canceled.” (An EPA official protests that, indeed, the agency did respond before the story was published). The New York Times, by the way, made the very same error.

Following that episode, the EPA pulled Biesecker from its master email list. “He’s more than welcome to visit our website,” says an EPA official, noting that there are some 50 AP reporters on the blast list — and Biesecker can get the releases from them. But why de-list the guy? “We don’t think he’s a trustworthy reporter,” says the EPA official.

The evaluation of untrustworthiness, argues the official, stems from the Dow-Pruitt meeting story, plus a previous instance in which Biesecker — along with staffer Adam Kealoha Causey — wrote an article based on emails from Pruitt’s previous work as Oklahoma attorney general. “Newly obtained emails underscore just how closely Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt coordinated with fossil fuel companies while serving as Oklahoma’s state attorney general, a position in which he frequently sued to block federal efforts to curb planet-warming carbon emissions,” notes the lead of the piece.

An EPA official cited an editorial in the Oklahoman taking issue with the story. “The fact Pruitt regularly corresponded and dealt with energy industry officials as attorney general of a state where energy is the No. 1 industry should not be surprising nor should it, by itself, be considered nefarious,” wrote the newspaper.

Other alleged Biesecker infractions have also upset the EPA. In June, Biesecker forwarded to the EPA press office a news release from Investigative Reporters and Editors announcing that Pruitt had won the organization’s “Golden Padlock” award “recognizing the most secretive U.S. agency or individual.” Noted the EPA official via email, “this unnecessary email reiterates his dislike for Mr. Pruitt.”

So there was distrust in the water when Biesecker and the AP landed on Hurricane Harvey. A trail of emails shows that the wire service decided early on how it would focus its investigative efforts: Houston has long been a petrochemical hub, with $50 billion in chemical plant construction since 2013. The city’s deep roots in this industry mean that companies have left behind a fair number of messes, some of them qualifying as EPA Superfund sites. A team of AP journalists wanted to know how these sites would fare underwater.

On Aug. 17, more than a week before Harvey’s landfall, the AP requested a copy of EPA’s “screening analysis” involving Superfund sites around floodplains or in danger of sea-level rise. As Harvey later bounced out of Texas and into Louisiana, the AP sprung into action, checking out flooded Superfund sites — by foot and by boat — and pressing the EPA for information. Here’s an Aug. 30 email inquiry obtained by the Erik Wemple Blog: “How many Superfund sites are underwater? Specific locations? What monitoring are state and federal regulators doing this week? Are they visiting sites by boat? Are they sampling floodwater? What specific actions are they taking to potentially mitigate the risk of hazardous materials migrating off site due to flooding?” It continued pressing those issues over the following days.

On Sept. 2, Biesecker and colleague Jason Dearen showed the results of their efforts under the provocative and alarming headline, “AP EXCLUSIVE: Toxic waste sites flooded, EPA not on scene.” In all, the outlet had visited seven Superfund sites in the Houston region. Several hours after the AP issued its story, the EPA responded with a statementindicating that it had seen aerial imagery showing that 13 of 41 sites were flooded and were “experiencing possible damage.” The statement started out by denouncing “misleading and inaccurate reporting” on the topic.

The AP adjusted its article, but not its narrative:

The statement confirmed the AP’s reporting that the EPA had not yet been able to physically visit the Houston-area sites, saying the sites had “not been accessible by response personnel.” EPA staff had checked on two Superfund sites in Corpus Christi on Thursday and found no significant damage.

AP journalists used a boat to document the condition of one flooded Houston-area Superfund site, but accessed others with a vehicle or on foot. The EPA did not respond to questions about why its personnel had not yet been able to do so.

The next day, the EPA did something that federal agencies, as a general proposition, do not do. It put a news release on the EPA websiteblasting not just a news outlet, but a specific reporter. With attitude, too. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 September 2017 at 3:09 pm

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