A Government Agency Impedes Access to Information: What Right Do the Public and Journalists Have to See Data about Children's Health and the Environment? (Watchdog)
Davis, Joseph A., Nieman Reports
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. …