Journalists from national news organizations were barred from a summit in Washington on harmful water contaminants on Tuesday, convened by the embattled environmental protection agency (EPA) chief, Scott Pruitt. One reporter was manhandled out of the building.
Pruitt is already engulfed in a scandal over his use of taxpayer money and closeness to lobbyists, actions he has been obliged to defend in a string of congressional hearings in recent weeks, amid calls for him to quit or be fired. He is being investigated for possible federal ethics violations including spending for round-the-clock security guards, first-class plane tickets and a $43,000 soundproof telephone booth.
The ethics problems have added to the controversy around his stewardship of the EPA, where he has been pushing to unwind many environmental protections.
On Tuesday Pruitt told a national summit on water quality that dealing with contaminants is “a national priority.”
But the Associated Press (AP) news agency, TV cable news giant CNN and the environmental-focused news organization E&E were barred by the EPA from attending the event, the AP reported.
An EPA spokesman, Jahan Wilcox, told the barred organizations they were not invited and there was no space for them, but gave no indication of why they specifically were barred, the AP said on Tuesday.
Guards barred an AP reporter from passing through a security checkpoint inside the event premises. When the reporter asked to speak to an EPA public affairs representative, the security guards grabbed the reporter by the shoulders and shoved her forcibly out of the EPA building, the AP said.
It was the latest incident to dog Pruitt’s time as head of the EPA in the Trump administration.
He drew scrutiny from lawmakers earlier this month after EPA emails were released showing that the agency had intervened in the publication of a new government study on certain contaminants.
Politico reported that the EPA and the White House sought to block publication of a federal health study on a nationwide water-contamination crisis.
The relevant chemicals are perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, which are used in some nonstick coatings, in firefighting foam and elsewhere. The chemicals can cause developmental defects and some other serious health problems and the authorities say the contaminants are present in dangerous levels in some water systems, including several near military bases and industrial sites.
Pruitt drew questions from both sides of the aisle last week after emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed an unidentified White House official calling a pending federal toxicological report on the chemical problem a “potential public-relations nightmare”.
The emails also revealed EPA officials intervening in the release of the study, which remains unpublished.
Politicians, including prominent Republicans, have called for the study to be released.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former California governor, tweeted: “I’m a simple guy, so I have a simple remedy when people like Pruitt ignore or hide pollution: if you don’t have a problem with Americans drinking contaminated drinking water, drink it yourself until you tap out or resign.”
Pruitt, formerly the Republican attorney general of Oklahoma who was known for repeatedly suing the Obama administration to curb environmental protection laws, invited what the EPA said were 200 people to Tuesday’s Washington session on the chemicals.
The people attending represented states, tribes, the chemical industry and other sectors, along with some environmental representatives.
“It’s clear this issue is a national priority,” Pruitt said, opening the session.
He pledged to start work toward establishing a legal maximum limit for the contaminants in drinking water systems.