Reports of improvement in environmental pollution levels were a deliberate attempt by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to mislead and pacify the public according to Jim Sibbison, a former EPA press officer. Equally disturbing, the news media have contributed to this disinformation campaign by treating EPA press releases as reliable news reports. For example, on July 28, 1988, in the midst of a summer during which medical waste washed up on East Coast beaches, The New York Times published a reassuring story by Philip Shabecoff, its environmental reporter, on page one. Shabecoff reported from Washington that nearly 90 percent of the nation’s publicly owned sewer systems had met their pollution-control requirements.
The Reagan Administration, in an effort to reduce EPA appropriations from Congress, encouraged EPA officials to soft-pedal pollution stories. Sibbison also revealed another previously unknown administration policy. Since Reagan first took office, executives from industry met secretly over the years with officials of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to discuss pending new EPA regulations affecting their companies. The OMB allowed the executives to suggest revisions in these regulations to reduce costs to their industry. Then the EPA makes the necessary changes and the “acceptable” regulations go into effect..
An example of EPA malfeasance is found in the dioxin cover-up reported by Greenpeace earlier this year. It started in February 1987 when the American Paper Industry (API) discovered dioxin, a highly hazardous substance, within the bleaching process of its paper mills. As a result the industry had to conclude the inevitability of dioxin being present in some of its products including disposable diapers, office stationery, coffee filters, tampons, milk cartons, butter cartons, cereal boxes, tissues and paper plates. A month later, a confidential API plan treated the public health threat posed by dioxin as a public relations problem and established a primary goal to “keep all allegations of health risks out of the public arena.”
Subsequently, internal documents from API, sent to Greenpeace, substantiated how EPA and industry officials were working together to limit public knowledge about the hazards of dioxin. According to U.S. District Judge Owen M. Panner, the documents revealed an agreement “between the EPA and the industry to suppress, modify or delay the results of the joint EPA/industry (dioxin) study or the manner in which they are publicly presented.”
Critics suggest that the North American pulp and paper industry used delaying tactics to avoid legal liability for medical problems that people may have suffered as a result of exposure to dioxin, similar to the Agent Orange litigation, and that the EPA is hesitant to regulate dioxins for the same reason.
While the Reagan administration has been in bed with the Dioxin polluters, several European governments are dealing with the problem head on. Throughout Europe, the need for highly bleached paper products is being re-evaluated. Sweden, for example, has stopped the sale of Chlorine-bleached disposable diapers. In Austria, consumers are using unbleached brown coffee filters and milk cartons.
COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW, Nov/Dec, 1988, “Dead fish and red herrings: how the EPA pollutes the news,” by Jim Sibbison, pp 25-28. GREENPEACE, Mar/Apr 1989, “Whitewash: The Dioxin Cover-up,” by Peter Von Stackelberg, pp 7-11.