Hurricane Katrina presented not only a human tragedy, but also one of the biggest environmental stories of the new millennium. Even after days of criticism that the federal government didn’t do enough to help hurricane victims, federal agencies compounded the problem by failing to respond adequately to journalists’ environmental questions.
The event gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a chance to show that it had learned lessons from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the agency was broadly criticized for withholding information and playing down risks.
Instead, EPA appears to have taken the same tight-lipped approach in responding to Katrina, denying the public crucial information collected with taxpayers’ money on behalf of taxpayers in the first place.
Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune was one of the reporters who in 2002 warned of his city’s high risk of the type of damage that has now happened. His own home flooded, Schleifstein reported on Katrina even as he moved to higher ground. That work was made much more difficult when EPA largely ignored Schleifstein’s requests for detailed information about chemical releases and other environmental problems.
Any member of the public, including a journalist, should expect fast action by EPA. This case was particularly troublesome considering Schleifstein has been in high demand for media interviews because of his expertise, and EPA’s staff probably was busy re-reading the Times-Picayune’s disaster-manual-in-advance, “Washing Away.”
Frustrated, Schleifstein filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act, which sets off a slow process that won’t help Americans who need answers now. Seth Borenstein of Knight-Ridder, and others, filed their own FOIA requests.
The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), a 1,450-member Philadelphia-based professional organization and a leading champion of open records, then sent a letter to EPA and other federal offices demanding quick action on the information requests.
That was on Tuesday, Sept. 6. The day after, EPA held a news conference at which little was revealed except that there had been oil and gas releases _ a fact that anyone with a TV could have surmised by watching CNN’s tape of the floodwaters, which clearly showed slicks.
EPA mentioned high levels of bacteria and some other pollutants, but didn’t back the statements up with data. The agency mentioned it had tested for 100 chemical compounds and other pollutants, but didn’t release the data.
Many journalists didn’t learn of the press conference until it was nearly at hand, or already over, due to delays in EPA informing them via email and other means.
What we need to know is what exactly is in the water. Which bacteria and how much? Which gasoline and oil constituents and how much? Which carcinogens? Which pathogens? Americans need to know what specific threats exist and what the government is doing about them.
They are paying for the raw data, and they deserve to see it. Now.
And they should be able to draw their own conclusions from the data, rather than have it filtered by the government.
Katrina brought an incredible week of suffering, and it’s long from over.
People died by the hour. A famous and cherished American city stood flooded, destroyed, silent. Americans across the country paid high gas prices as petroleum products washed down streets once known more for high bar tabs.
And as bodies continued to float, as crews pumped what is surely a toxic brew of chemicals and floodwaters into local lakes, journalists and other Americans waited for answers to a whole range of environmental questions. Were the bacteria in the water capable of making people sick? Were chemicals present in concentrations large enough to do harm? What the public got instead of water-sample results were sound bites.
EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and others have to do a better job of informing the public. SEJ already had supported broad changes in federal Freedom of Information Act to make it easier for Americans to get information _ the whole point of the law.
The changes also would punish agencies that play games and insist on secrecy, in some cases arrogantly ignoring legitimate requests for information. Those calls for action take on added weight in light of EPA and CDC’s dismal early response to questions. Some questions might not have answers yet_ but merely offering silence, or the next thing to it, is less helpful than explaining why the information isn’t available, or when it will be.
The agencies simply must do better. Lives may depend on it.
(Perry Beeman is president of the Society of Environmental Journalists and an environment writer for The Des Moines Register in Iowa. For information on SEJ’s request visit www.sej.org.)