By Alan Miller, The Columbus Dispatch It said: “Ohio EPA officials would not agree to an interview for this story.”
Unfortunately, it is not unusual.
The story was about how bright green algae already is blooming in Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio, and that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency had awarded the city of Celina an $8 million grant to improve its drinking-water treatment plant.
The grant and the improvements are needed largely because of the algae. And that grant is on top of roughly $20 million the state already has spent in recent years trying to clean the lake, which is filled with toxic algae that grows in part because of fertilizer runoff from properties in the watershed — primarily farms.
So why would EPA officials not agree to an interview? And why should you care?
Reporter Laura Arenschield first contacted the agency’s public information office a week and a half before her deadline. She asked to speak with someone who had been working on Grand Lake’s water issues.
The EPA is loaded with experts on all aspects of environmental science and policy, but sources tell us that they and at least some of their counterparts at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources have been forbidden to talk with the media.
Instead, we are asked to work with “media relations managers” or “public information officers,” some of whom are helpful and some of whom are not. And virtually none of them are experts in environmental science or policy. In fact, sometimes they give us information that is flat out wrong. We do fact-checking and find that their “facts” are incorrect.
Clearly, if you were seeking information about toxic algae affecting a public water supply, you’d want to speak with an expert, not a middle man with a layman’s knowledge of the topic. And we are working on your behalf, so we push for access to experts and accurate information.
In this case, even the public information person wouldn’t agree to an interview with Arenschield, and instead said that she should provide questions in writing so that they could consider them.
Here’s the problem with that: It comes with no promise of answers, or accurate answers, or answers in a timely manner — or that we would have the opportunity for follow-up questions. And follow-up questions are important for many reasons:
We want to make sure we clearly understand the answers, and we sometimes need clarification. Sometimes, spokespeople, and even experts, use jargon or unfamiliar terms, and we need to press for clear answers to ensure accuracy. And sometimes, they are purposely vague, seemingly to avoid answering the question. When that happens during an interview, we can look them in the eye and know for sure — and call them out as needed.
But when these taxpayer-funded public information officers won’t even get on the phone to hear the question, it is clear that they and their bosses in Gov. John Kasich’s administration are being obstructionists and really have no interest in providing information to the public.
Our goal is to write accurate and fair stories. We will seek to write those stories with or without agency officials. Their unwillingness to cooperate will not cause us to drop the story, as we suspect they sometimes hope.
In this case, because Arenschield received no help from the agency funded by your tax money, she sought and obtained information from expert voices from outside the agency.
This is a long-standing problem with the Ohio EPA. In an episode of this theater of the absurd last year, Arenschield showed up at a public forum to ask questions of some EPA experts on the panel. A school student in the room asked a question and received an answer from the experts, but when Arenschield followed up with a question, a public information officer held up a hand and stopped her mid-sentence, telling her that she was not allowed to ask questions of the experts at a public forum.
As Arenschield says, “The EPA has some really smart people working for it. Limiting public access to these experts is very troubling.”
And she says that not because it makes her job more difficult, but because you, the public, deserve to hear from the experts you are paying to do those jobs.