(CN) – The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday barred The Associated Press, CNN and the environmental-focused news organization E&E from a national summit on harmful water contaminants.
According to published reports, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox told the organizations they were not invited to Tuesday’s summit convened by EPA chief Scott Pruitt and that there was no space for them, although they were not told why they were being shut out of the event.
Guards barred an AP reporter from passing through a security checkpoint inside the building. When the reporter asked to speak to an EPA public-affairs person, the security guards grabbed the reporter by the shoulders and shoved her forcibly out of the EPA building.
In a statement AP News editor Sally Buzbee said, “the Environmental Protection Agency’s selective barring of news organizations, including the AP, from covering today’s meeting is alarming and a direct threat to the public’s right to know about what is happening inside their government.
“It is particularly distressing that any journalist trying to cover an event in the public interest would be forcibly removed,” Buzbee said.
The one-day summit, which convened at 7:30 a.m. is focusing on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances, man-made chemicals that are found in a wide range of everyday household products. Because they were created to be resistant to heat and water, they are both very persistent in the environment and the human body, and exposure to them has been linked with thyroid defects, problems in pregnancy and certain cancers.
While eight large manufacturers pledged to stop using them in 2010, a 2016 Harvard study found about 6 million Americans are regularly exposed to the compounds through their drinking water.
On May 14, Politico reported that the EPA and the White House sought to block publication of a federal health study on the chemicals and their role in a nationwide water-contamination crisis, believing it would be a “public relations nightmare” for the Trump administration.
The report, which has not yet been released, was prepared by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It purportedly says that Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances have contaminated water supplies near military bases, chemical plants and other sites in the populous eastern United States.
Despite the consternation the Politico report caused, the EPA pressed on with its summit, which it said will give attendees tools to “share information on ongoing efforts to characterize risks from PFAS and develop monitoring and treatment/cleanup techniques” as well as “develop risk communication strategies that will help communities to address public concerns with [Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances.]”
But the real danger of the compounds are still not fully understood. While EPA has been aware of the chemical for years, the pollutant has long been lower on the agency’s list of dangerous pollutants, known as a Maximum Contaminant Level list. Seth Kellogg, a member of the Board of Scientists and Engineers section of the National Groundwater Association, told Courthouse News in March, prior to the announcement of this conference, that the classification might change.
She said EPA mandated testing for the compound for the first time in 2012 and that data started to roll in 2015. Kellogg said, in response to the data, EPA was starting the process to increase the MCL classification of the compound but she was unsure when that might happen.
“EPA is getting more and more involved with sites that have [this pollutant in them]… but I don’t think anyone is real clear on what authority they are getting involved because there isn’t a MCL.” Kellogg said of early reports of EPA intervening in areas with high levels of the compound. “It’s generally unclear what reason EPA is getting involved.”
Among the towns where EPA got involved was Blades, Delaware. Back in February, the town’s water supply was cut off for almost two weeks while the state helped the city install a new water purification system.
Timothy Ratsep, program administrator for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control said the EPA asked the state to test Blades’ water in 2017 and when results came in early 2018, the request to shut the water off soon followed.
Ratsep said his agency was hoping for a new classification for the compounds because “it makes it a lot easier to regulate [them.]”