Scott Pruitt at Senate hearing

EPA security guards refuse entry to AP reporter, then shove her out the door

May 22, 2018

On May 22, 2018, security guards at the Environmental Protection Agency prevented a number of journalists from entering a building where EPA administrator Scott Pruitt was giving a speech. AP reporter Ellen Knickmeyer said that when she asked to speak with someone from the EPA’s press office about the denial of access, one of the security guards grabbed her shoulders and physically pushed her out of the building.

On May 22, Pruitt delivered opening remarks at a two-day summit to discuss a certain class of chemicals — known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — that have contaminated drinking water in many areas of the country. It was held at William Jefferson Clinton South, a building on the EPA’s campus in Washington, D.C. The plan was for the first hour of the summit, including Pruitt’s remarks, to be open to the press and livestreamed to the public, and for the rest of the summit to be closed to the press. 

When Ellen Knickmeyer, an AP journalist who writes about the EPA, tried to enter the EPA building around 7:35 a.m. to report on the summit, security guards said that she was not on the invite list and refused to let her in.

Knickmeyer did not respond to a request for comment, but the AP’s David Bauder reported on what happened to his colleague:

Knickmeyer said she called Monday about the event and was told by EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox that it was invitation-only and there was no room for her. She said she showed up anyway, and was told by a security guard that she couldn’t enter. She said she asked to speak to a representative from the press office, was refused and told to get out. Photos of the event showed several empty seats.

After security told her that “we can make you get out,” Knickmeyer said she took out her phone to record what was happening. Some of the security guards reached for it, and a woman grabbed her shoulders from behind and pushed her about five feet out the door.

EPA blocks some media from summit, then reverses course (AP)

At least two other journalists witnessed what happened to Knickmeyer.

Both Garret Ellison, of the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan, and Jonathan Salant, of NJ Advance Media, were invited to cover the summit, since PFAS contamination is an issue in both states. Ellison told the Freedom of the Press Foundation that he has extensively covered PFAS issues in Michigan, and he worked with the EPA’s regional office in Chicago to attend and cover the summit. 

Ellison told the Freedom of the Press Foundation that he saw Knickmeyer standing off to the side of the entrance and then heard security guards yell at her and saw one push her out the door. Salant said that he tried to assist Knickmeyer, even giving her the number of an EPA press contact, but that the security guards refused to let her call anyone.

The problem was the security guards did not allow her time to clear up what could have been a simple misunderstanding before physically evicting her,” he said. “In fact, I gave the AP reporter the name and number of the press officer who were told to call in case we were accidentally not on the list.”

Ellison said that after Knickmeyer was pushed out the door, EPA press secretary Michael Abboud, accompanied by EPA press officers, escorted him and Salant into the summit.

He said that when he asked the group of EPA officials about what had happened with Knickmeyer, one of the press officers shrugged and said, “They weren’t invited.”

Emily Holden, an environmental reporter at Politico who was also invited to the summit, entered shortly after Knickmeyer. She said on Twitter that she overheard one of the EPA security guards talk about how they threw Knickmeyer out of the building after she said that she would start filming.

Knickmeyer was not the only reporter prevented from covering the summit.

Corbin Hiar, who covers chemical issues for E&E, told the Freedom of the Press Foundation that he had emailed the EPA’s press office in advance of the summit to ask about covering it, but that he never heard back.

He said that he arrived at the designated press entrance to the summit around 7:50 a.m., he saw that the security guards were checking journalists’ names against a printed list. Since his name was not on the list, he was not admitted. After being denied access to the summit, he emailed an EPA press officer and said that security would not let him in. He received no response.

CNN’s Rene Marsh was also barred from entering the summit.

“Today, CNN was turned away from covering the PFAS National Leadership Summit at the EPA after multiple attempts to attend,” the network said in a statement. “While several news organizations were permitted, the EPA selectively excluded CNN and other media outlets. We understand the importance of an open and free press and we hope the EPA does, too.”

Sharon Meyer, an environmental reporter for The Intercept, said on Twitter that the EPA refused to grant her access to cover the summit despite her asking months in advance.

The EPA, which did not respond to a request for comment from the Freedom of the Press Foundation, offered various justifications for its treatment of Knickmeyer and other reporters. 

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement that there was no room for Knickmeyer and other journalists to attend.

“This was simply an issue of the room reaching capacity, which reporters were aware of prior to the event,” he said. We were able to accomodate 10 news outlets and provided a livestream for those we could not accommodate.”

Meanwhile, EPA communications official Andrea Drinkard told Politico both that the meeting was already at capacity when Knickmeyer tried to enter and also that the meeting’s attendees did not feel comfortable with any press attending the summit.

It is not clear whether the room was actually at capacity. The Hill’s Miranda Green, who was invited to cover the summit, reported that a number of the chairs reserved for members of the media remained empty.

Addressing the treatment of Knickmeyer, Wilcox initially told Axios that he was “unaware of the individual situation that has been reported” and later told NBC News that Knickmeyer had threatened “negative coverage” if she was not let in.

In a statement released late Tuesday evening, Wilcox claimed that Knickmeyer “pushed through the security entrance.” After the AP objected to that characterization, he released another statement, which said that Knickmeyer “showed up at EPA but refused to leave the building after being asked to do so.”

According to the AP, an aide to Pruitt eventually called Knickmeyer to personally apologize for the way that she was treated.

Following public outcry, the EPA reversed its earlier limitations on press access to the summit. Around 12 p.m. on May 22, the agency announced that the second part of the summit — which ran from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and was originally closed to the press and the public — would be open to all journalists.

The AP praised the new policy.

We are pleased that the EPA has reconsidered its decision and will now allow AP to attend the remainder of today’s meeting,” an AP spokeswoman said in a statement. “The AP looks forward to informing the public of the important discussions at the water contaminants summit.”

But when Wilcox released a statement announcing the new press access policy, he blamed journalists for taking up seats at the summit that could otherwise have gone to other attendees.

When we were made aware of the incident, we displaced stakeholders to the overflow room who flew to Washington for this meeting so that every member of the press could have a seat,” he said.

The summit was particularly newsworthy in light of recent reports that top EPA officials tried to block the release of a damaging report from the federal government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. That report, which still has not been released to the public, reportedly concluded that four PFAS chemicals are more harmful than the EPA has publicly acknowledged.

This is not the first time that the EPA has excluded journalists from covering Pruitt’s speeches. 

On December 1, 2017, InsideSources Iowa reporter Ethan Stoetzer was covering a Pruitt speech at the Couser Cattle Company, in Nevada, Iowa, when he was approached by a local sheriff’s deputy and ordered to leave the premises.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Pruitt escorted Ellison and Salant into the summit. In fact, the two journalists were escorted by EPA press secretary Michael Abboud and two EPA press officers. 

May 23, 2018 Update

Reporters who tried to attend the second day of the summit were not allowed to enter the EPA building.

CNN reported that one of its reporters showed his press pass to a security guard at the EPA entrance, and the guard said, “Oh, you’re not allowed today. They ain’t doing the CNN stuff. What’s this, the press?”

A number of professional journalism organizations, including the Society of Environmental Journalists, and members of Congress criticized the EPA’s treatment of the press.

It beggars understanding that the EPA would prevent any reporters from covering a topic of such intense nationwide interest and concern,” SEJ president Bobby Magill wrote in the letter. “But these are just the latest additions to your pattern of antagonism toward the press, and disregard for the public’s right to know what EPA is or is not doing to protect their health and the environment.”

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