In mid-summer 2002 the Environmental Protection Agency finished a major report on the environmental health of children in the United States. But as 2002 nears its end, nobody can read it—not the press, not the public. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the arm of the White House that oversees regulatory and information activities at most federal agencies, has kept the report locked up in indefinite review, with no release date in sight.
The incident underscores a key problem facing U.S. environmental journalists—access to government information, even scientific information, is increasingly restricted. A major player in bringing this about is OMB, which offers industries a back-channel way to influence regulatory agencies. This method is unhindered by laws such as the Administrative Procedures Act that are meant to ensure the process of open government. It also highlights another tough problem environmental journalists confront—how to tell a story our audience cares intensely about (whether the environment is making children sick and what government is doing about it), when some answers might be buried in a tangle of government procedures and jargon.
The Story That Doesn’t Get Told
Most audiences are bored with stories about what goes wrong in government—about things that didn’t happen, reports that didn’t get published. A possible direction for this story might be the exploration of ways in which the Bush administration is working to shelve a Clinton administration push on children’s environmental health. Selling such a story to editors can be tough enough when it has to compete with celebrity crime trials for space, but in the press of daily deadlines and the absence of a report, often no story will be told.
The general contents of the report, “America’s Children and the Environment: Measures of Children and the Environment,” are actually not much of a mystery. This is merely an update of a report of the same title published in December 2000, during the last days of the Clinton administration. The report tracks trends in a variety of indicators related to children’s health and the environment—in some cases, simply adding another year’s data to the 10-year trend chart. It includes information such as how many children live in counties where health-based air pollution and drinking water standards are exceeded. It also records the percentage of homes in which children are exposed to tobacco smoke, the average concentrations of toxic lead in the blood of children, and the incidence of diseases such as asthma and cancer among children. None of this information is especially dangerous or factually controversial, and most of it is available elsewhere and has been published before.
Environmental activists such as Steve Gurney of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) contend that OMB has been sitting on the report because it is politically inconvenient. OMB says it has not been sitting on the report; its explanation is that the report is merely bogged down in interagency review.
Early drafts of the current report have been shared with government reviewers. Sources involved in drafting and review say that OMB asked the Environmental Protection Agency to remove figures on how many U.S. children live in counties with listed Superfund hazardous waste sites. The earlier report published in 2001 did include the Superfund figures. (By the way, that forbidden number is about three million, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry [ATSDR].) OMB has also opposed continued funding of the Superfund cleanup program because of the tax it could impose on the petrochemical industry.
One possible reason for this change in OMB policy relates to John D. Graham,who now heads OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Formerly, he was at Harvard’s Center for Risk Analysis, and the “risk-based” approach to regulation, which Graham brought to OMB under President Bush, might validly question whether living in a Superfund county presents any actual danger to a child. In a county as large as Los Angeles, for example, children might not even live geographically close to the polluted site. Nor are children who live close to Superfund sites necessarily exposed to toxins, and the level of exposure might not actually present a demonstrable risk. But previous Congresses and administrations thought the question worthy enough of asking that they created by law an agency, the ATSDR, whose main mission was to collect, evaluate and publish this kind of information.
The Public’s Right to Know
This is a debate that environmental journalists have been caught in for decades. Industries with a monetary stake in chemical facilities argue that chemicals should be considered innocent until proven guilty of environmental harm. Parents with children who might play in contaminated dirt argue that chemicals should be considered dangerous until proven safe, and they want the information they need to make an informed judgment. All too often, the science is inconclusive.
This situation raises further questions. Is imperfect and contradictory information better to have than no information at all? Some argue that the cure for bad information is more information. Does the public have a right to whatever information government has collected, even when what’s been learned might be inconclusive? And do the press have the right to assess and publish information gathered by government agencies, even if no certain conclusions about its content exists?
During the last several decades, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, but increasingly since the deregulatory thrust of the Reagan administration, OMB has assumed and been given authority to make such decisions on access to governmental information about the environment for scientists, regulators and the American people. This authority arises out of a large, complex and obscure body of law (and executive orders that have the force of law) such as the Paperwork Reduction Act, the Government Performance and Results Act, the Data Quality Act, Executive Order 12866, and others too numerous to discuss here. This new legal ground has eroded some of what were the foundations of open government—the Freedom of Information Act, the Government in the Sunshine Act, the Federal Advisory Committees Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act among them.
Those who follow this issue say that OMB’s review of the 2002 children’s health report is unusual. They contend that its actions in this case represent a new extension of OMB’s power, since this report has almost no overt regulatory or budget implications, which is OMB’s traditional purview. Agency scientists say their work, and scientific and technical reports based on it, has traditionally been subject to review only or mainly by their scientific peers.
If and when this report is released, there will be important aspects to this story that will be difficult for journalists to obtain and share with readers, listeners and viewers. What journalists will not find in the report will be the unvarnished views of the scientists, statisticians and epidemiologists who drafted the report. Nor will they be able to tell which parts of the original report were deleted or changed either by OMB or by other agency reviewers. (Not every government document review is shared transparently with the public; however, technical and scientific reports are usually prepared much more openly than policy documents.) What will also not be apparent is what contacts with industry lobbyists or administration political operatives might have influenced changes in the report. But to report this story fully to the public, these are precisely the directions of inquiry journalists must pursue if they are going to truly inform people about the possible environmental dangers their children face. It’s tough to gather this kind of information, but unless reporters work to do just that, the public will not be well informed.
Joseph A. Davis is a writer and editor of the biweekly “Tip Sheet” for environmental journalists. He has been writing on environmental issues for 25 years, including an eight-year stint on Capitol Hill reporting for CQ Weekly Report. Through CQ’s news service, his articles have appeared in more than 110 newspapers.