WASHINGTON (January 24, 2014)—Twenty-four West Virginia scientists sent a public letter today to the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), calling on the agencies to allow scientists to speak freely regarding the recent Elk River chemical spill and other public concerns. Since the spill, federal and state agencies have released sometimes confusing and contradictory recommendations to the public regarding water safety.
“Your agencies have repeatedly failed to adequately respond to questions from the public and the press,” the letter says. “We deserve to be told what is known–and what is not known– about the risks the chemical poses to human health as the disaster unfolds. If the government had been more forthcoming about what is not known about the leaked chemicals, citizens and local officials would have been able to make better choices about the actions needed to protect their families and communities.”
They conclude by calling on the administrators to “update your policies and practices to allow unfettered access to the scientists whose expertise can help prevent illness and injury.”
The Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which organized the letter, tracks scientific integrity and media policies at federal agencies. Despite public commitments to transparency and internal policies that generally affirm scientists’ right to speak freely to the press, scientists at both agencies are often discouraged or prevented from speaking openly and publicly, especially on high visibility issues. At EPA, for example, reporters are often asked to submit questions to scientists in advance, and public affairs officials approve answers before they are released.
Michael Halpern, a program manager for the center, has written a blog post highlighting the importance of putting well-intentioned policies into action. “In times of emergencies, especially when the public health and safety may be at risk it is essential that we let scientists speak,” he writes. “In situations like these, accurate and timely information needs to get to the public and allowing scientists to speak to the media without prior clearance from public affairs or other officials can allow for more comprehensive information to reach those who need it. Public affairs officers can play a coordinating role and can be informed of scientists’ communication to the media and public, but they should not act as gatekeepers that compromise our ability to understand the threats that citizens face.”
Earlier this week, the Society of Environmental Journalists also sent a letter to the CDC and EPA calling for greater access to scientists and officials. The CDC’s public affairs director responded and committed to examining their processes to better respond to requests for information.