This story was updated at 8:34 a.m. EDT.
Rep. Dan Kildee has asked EPA’s internal watchdog to investigate the agency’s mishandling of reporters at a summit on toxic nonstick chemicals that the Michigan Democrat claims his aide was also barred from attending.
EPA’s press office, however, disputes the version of events Kildee and his staff have been presenting to the media about his aide — raising questions about whether the lawmaker was more interested in the substance or politics of the botched event.
"I write to call your attention to recent actions by Administrator Scott Pruitt and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seeking to block journalists and Members of Congress from attending a taxpayer-funded summit recently held at the agency’s headquarters," Kildee said yesterday in a letter to EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins Jr.
Kildee noted EPA prevented reporters from attending parts of the summit on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Pruitt’s announcement Tuesday of steps to address health concerns raised by the class of chemicals, which have been linked to cancer and developmental problems, was largely overshadowed by the agency’s rough treatment of an Associated Press reporter and selective access handed out to favored outlets (Greenwire, May 22).
The congressman went on to say that "my congressional staff was blocked from attending portions of the EPA PFAS summit." Since 2013, he has represented Flint, Mich., and surrounding communities struggling with drinking water contamination by PFAS and other toxic chemicals.
Kildee concluded by asking Elkins to "conduct a fair and thorough investigation into this matter, including if Administrator Pruitt or the EPA, through their attempts to limit access, violated any federal laws or agency regulations, including federal statutes concerning open meetings and transparency."
Elkins’ spokeswoman confirmed he had received the request and is reviewing it with his leadership team.
If the IG takes on the case, he may be able to determine whether EPA violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act — as some journalism professional organizations have alleged (E&E News PM, May 23).
Spokesman Jahan Wilcox has previously said that the summit was "not a federal advisory committee event," which would have required it to be open to the public and press.
Elkins’ review could also sort out what happened with Jordan Dickinson, the Kildee staffer who was allegedly blocked from attending the event.
Emails provided to E&E News by EPA show agency officials told Dickinson they could "get you set with all the info to attend" five minutes after he contacted them about coming to the event the Friday before it was set to begin.
While another agency official expressed some concerns about whether they still had space for Dickinson, later the same day he said that wouldn’t be a problem.
"Good news: You can certainly join us for the PFAS Summit next Tuesday," wrote Matt Klasen, a staffer in EPA’s Office of Congressional Affairs. In parentheses, he added, "The Summit continues into Wednesday, but the Wednesday session is limited to federal agency folks and states."
Dickinson ultimately declined to attend Tuesday, instead watching the first hour of the daylong event via livestream, according to EPA officials and Kildee staffers.
On Wednesday, however, their stories diverge. EPA says Dickinson arrived hours after the half-day, closed-door event had ended, hoping to see a 3 p.m. panel featuring the director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality that had actually occurred the day before.
Kildee’s office, on the other hand, says Dickinson showed up around 11 a.m. — which is after news reports began to emerge about EPA turning away reporters again, but before the event concluded at 12:30 p.m. A text message chain provided to E&E News supports their version of events.
"Currently fighting with EPA to even let me in the summit," Dickinson said to Mitchell Rivard, Kildee’s chief of staff, at 11:14 a.m. "They said it’s only state and tribal."
Despite declining to send anyone to monitor or take part in the previous day’s events where his staffers were welcome, the congressman then said on Twitter that Pruitt’s "lack of transparency and willingness to deny access to Members of Congress and the media is deeply troubling." That tweet, sent Wednesday afternoon, had garnered more than 3,900 retweets or likes by last night.
Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.