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US EPA's Wheeler in memo encourages staff to be transparent

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US EPA's Wheeler in memo encourages staff to be transparent

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a July 30 memorandum to agency staff encouraged them to operate openly and transparently.

"The mission of the EPA is to protect human health and the environment," Wheeler said in the agencywide memorandum. "We exist to serve the public. As such, the public should trust our work."

The EPA is committed to earning and maintaining the public's trust through transparency and accountability in its actions and civility and fairness in the public participation process, Wheeler said. He noted that past administrators have issued similar directives that have come to be commonly known as fishbowl memos because they effectively stress that the agency should operate as if it were in a fishbowl.

Since taking the helm of the EPA on July 9, Wheeler has pledged to pursue the Trump administration's deregulatory agenda while also moving to make the agency more transparent and to rebuild the public trust. Before coming to the EPA, first as deputy administrator, Wheeler was a lobbyist for more than 20 entities, including a major coal company, but he has said he will recuse himself from cases related to former clients.

Wheeler in the memo listed a handful of transparency principles and protocols that staff should use to guide its efforts, and he also admonished staff to act in a manner worthy of the public's trust.

All programs must provide for the fullest possible public participation in decision making, Wheeler said. This means staff must not only remain open and accessible to those representing all points of view, but staff must also actively seek out the views of those that would be affected by decisions. That may include communities of color, Native Americans, people disproportionately impacted by pollution, small business and local governments, the memo said. And the agency "will not accord privileged status to any special interest" and will not accept any proposal or recommendation without first taking a critical and independent examination.

In the rulemaking process, the EPA must ensure that the basis for its decision is in the public record. As such, all written comments on a proposed rule should be entered into the public rulemaking docket and thoughtfully considered, Wheeler said in the memo.

Also, it is essential that the public is given timely notice, to the extent possible, on information or views that influenced the EPA's decisions, Wheeler wrote. That means EPA employees must summarize in writing and place in the rulemaking docket any oral communications via a meeting or telephone discussion with a member of the public or interest group if that information "contains significant new factual information regarding a proposed rule."

The memo contained a section on how to handle litigation and formal adjudication proceedings and noted staff should be sure to go through the proper legal channels in communications. Further, staff should provide an opportunity for public comment on proposed consent decrees and settlement agreements when possible, Wheeler said.

Wheeler in the memo addressed how staff should handle public inquiries. While the EPA should be open to the press and responsive to requests for records or information from members and committees of the U.S. Congress, those actions should be done in consultation with the agency's Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations and the Office of Public Affairs, respectively, the memo said.

Wheeler also reiterated his commitment to make his appointment calendar public and said he has directed a number of other senior officials to follow suit.