In February, after we published our first stories on the Eagle Ford, we began trying to answer that question by seeking on-the-record interviews with EPA officials in Washington, D.C., and Texas. Five months later, no such interviews have been granted.
Instead, EPA press officers have told us to put our questions in writing, an increasingly common response from federal agencies under the Obama administration. The process usually goes like this: A journalist calls the press office to schedule an interview but instead is told to submit written questions. Once these are in, a press officer gets answers from scientists or other officials and then crafts a written response. In most cases, nobody involved in the process — not even the EPA press officers — will agree to be quoted by name.
Journalists object to this policy because clarity and accuracy are easily compromised when they're forced to discuss complex issues through intermediaries who aren't subject-matter experts. To ask follow-up questions, the laborious process must begin all over again, with no opportunity for the natural give-and-take of a conversation.
The EPA’s non-responsiveness in the Texas air pollution story is especially troubling because it keeps taxpayers in the dark about the agency’s handling of a critical environmental issue. Concerns about the oil and gas industry's air pollution — which contains benzene, toluene and other chemicals known to damage human health — extend far beyond Texas. Similar problems exist in the Bakken Shale of North Dakota, the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming and the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania.
Our first attempt at an on-the-record interview was with Ron Curry, the administrator of EPA Region 6, which includes Texas. We discussed our request with David Gray, the region’s director of external and government affairs, by phone. Gray suggested we start with an initial interview on background, which meant we couldn’t quote or identify any EPA officials on the call. He then handed off our request to Cathy Milbourn, a press officer at EPA headquarters.
Milbourn set up an interview, but the only EPA participants were herself and a senior public affairs advisor in the EPA's Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards in North Carolina.
The two officials answered a few of our questions and provided some general information on EPA rules, most of which we already knew through our reporting. Neither had the expertise to give us what we really needed: answers to our complex questions about enforcement and regulations.
In early April we asked for an on-the-record interview with the EPA official we believed could best address these questions: Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. As the agency’s highest-ranking air official, McCabe — perhaps with an assist from technical staff — seemed a logical candidate for a frank discussion about what the EPA can and can’t do under the Clean Air Act.
At first, the EPA seemed to be considering our request. Spokeswoman Julia Valentine emailed back, saying she would respond "shortly." After three weeks, we’d heard nothing. So we checked in with Valentine again, and she again promised to get back to us. Another four weeks passed. After further prompting, we learned that our request had been sent to Milbourn, the spokeswoman we talked with in March.