EPA Cannot Retrieve Text Message Content
New “Deprovisioning Process” for Employees to “Wipe” Mobile Devices
Washington, DC — The public is unable to obtain text messages to and from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Compounding this lack of transparency, this week, EPA directed much of its staff to “wipe” their official mobile devices before leaving the agency or receiving new phones.
PEER is trying to obtain the text messages of a senior official who abruptly announced her retirement while under investigation by the Inspector General (IG) regarding complaints that she had tampered with risk assessments for new chemicals. PEER filed an appeal after an agency official denied the groups’ FOIA request on the basis that –
“Currently, EPA doesn’t have the capability to retrieve the content of text messages.”
Effective this week, EPA has also imposed a “deprovisioning process” for its DC Headquarters and North Carolina Research Triangle offices, leaving the agency to wipe their mobile devices before turning them in. Employees are supposed to save “all records” but it is not specified where and how this should be done, nor who will check to ensure that departing employees do so. This policy is slated to be expanded agency-wide and will include an unspecified “Phase 2.”
“By shielding text messages, EPA opens a back channel for outside interests to surreptitiously influence public health decisions,” stated PEER Litigation and Policy Attorney Colleen Teubner, who is appealing the agency denial. “By law and EPA’s own policies, text messages concerning official business are public records and must be made publicly accessible.”
Over the past several months, PEER has lodged a series of complaints with EPA’s IG concerning a cadre of holdover chemical division managers who have overridden risk assessments and hazard determinations of staff scientists in ways that benefit industry. PEER believes some managers are in regular contact with chemical industry representatives who track their products through EPA’s approval process.
Much of this lobbying takes place through text messages. The sheer volume of text messaging is striking. For example, one manager who has since returned to industry logged 1,719 texts over a little more than a two-year period, but EPA would produce only the area codes for all these messages.
“EPA should be capturing and retaining all of this text traffic, especially interactions with industry and other outside parties” added PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, noting that the agency has not formally rejected any new chemical since screening began under a 2016 law. “Without a strong dose of sunlight, this corpuscle of corruption will continue afflicting EPA and endangering public health.”