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News Flash: EPA Now Accountable to Public

This is the first of two PBS NewsHour reports on hexavalent chromium, a chemical found in U.S. drinking water and the agency charged with regulating it. This report aired on March 13.

There is nothing more frustrating for a reporter than posing legitimate, reasonable questions to a representative of a federal agency and, in response, being told to talk to the hand.

Such was the case when David Heath of the Center for Public Integrity and I did our spadework for our investigative stories in March on failings at the Environmental Protection Agency in the way it vets science — and scientists — who make decisions on acceptable levels of toxic chemicals in our environment. (Here’s the Center for Public Integrity’s latest story and in-depth investigation on the subject.)

Despite repeated attempts to get anyone at the EPA to agree to an on-camera interview, all I got in reply was a short statement from an agency PR flack.

In this second report, Miles O’Brien asks why federal regulations on chromium-6 have been delayed, despite evidence showing its possible links to cancer.

So it was gratifying — and yet still a little maddening — when that same flack sent me word that the EPA is changing the way it does business by letting the public have a little more visibility into its machinations.

As we reported, scientists who were tapped to decide how to update the old standard for safe levels of hexavalent chromium in drinking water were compromised by clear conflicts of interest.

On Friday, in the wake of our investigation, the EPA announced changes in the way it will be doing business to ensure that its own conflict-of-interest policy is not circumvented.

The new oversight, the agency said in a press release, “will ensure that contractors follow all existing conflicts of interest guidance and requirements.”

According to the press release, the agency will now publish the names, principal affiliations and resumes of candidates being considered for future peer review panels. “EPA will now ensure that the public has the opportunity to review and comment on a peer review panel’s composition when influential scientific documents are being considered,” the release said.

Wow. Imagine that; an arm of our government is deigning to let us all see and evaluate how they do business.

I sure wish that wasn’t a news flash.

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