Cheap Seats 2019
Fakers and the News - 02/13
By Rich Trzupek
I am not a fan of the term “fake news,” no matter who is using it. Those two words convey a purposed message: People assumed to be credible who occupy positions from which they can influence wide swaths of society are deliberately, knowingly lying. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s President Trump accusing the Washington Post or the Washington Post accusing the president – both are ultimately employing the same sort of process to support their conclusions.
The problem in either case is more subtle than simple-minded fabrication. It’s really more about spin than it is about absolute truths or falsehoods. It’s about the facts one chooses to use, the facts one chooses to ignore and the way the facts selected are presented. The problem is the ever-increasing proliferation of people and organizations who frame the facts they choose to utilize in ways designed to support their personal agendas.
The more complex the story, the easier it is to frame up the facts selected to fit the chosen agenda. The newspaper that used to be the Chicago Tribune and its chief environmental reporter/hit man Michael Hawthorne are especially proficient at this sort of story-telling. The Trib’s continuing crusade against the chemical ethylene oxide and companies that use it provides a very useful object lesson in the practice.
Consider the story that the story that the Trib ran Feb. 6 under Hawthorne’s by-line. The headline read: “Trump EPA confirms Sterigenics is emitting alarming levels of cancer-causing gas in Willowbrook but still won’t take action.”
That is quite the headline, ain’t it? Factual? Mostly, but still deceptive as hell. Start with the reference to the “Trump” EPA rather than just “EPA.” The implication clearly being that the president and/or the president’s policies are somehow influencing the agency’s decision-making process, which – as the headline also implies – is the reason that the EPA “won’t take action.”
That headline certainly seems to line up with Trib editors’ and Michael Hawthorne’s world views, but it’s extremely deceptive, for a number of reason. First of all, the primary regulatory responsibility here lays at the state level, not the federal level. To quote EPA: “Federal environmental programs were designed by Congress to be administered at the state and local level wherever possible.”
In Illinois, the permitting authority and primary enforcement authority is the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). If Hawthorne and the Trib have a bone to pick over supposed “alarming levels” of ethylene oxide, then their first target should be the IEPA, or should I say the “Pritzker IEPA?”
It’s also very disingenuous to imply that there is something sinister going on because EPA and IEPA purportedly “won’t take action.” First of all, both have and are “taking action.” Personally, I don’t believe that the minimal risk associated with Sterigenics Willowbrook operations justifies targeting it for a complex, time-consuming sampling program given that thousands of other facilities use chemicals equally or more hazardous aren’t subject to such scrutiny. However, that’s what happened and it does meet the definition of “taking action,” no matter what the Trib may believe.
Secondly, if somebody on the Trib would take the time to get educated on how environmental law and regulation actually works, as opposed to the way Hawthorne thinks it works, they would realize that the EPA and IEPA have limited authority. They have, respectively, only the authority delegated to them Congress and the Illinois General Assembly, respectively. They are, in other words, subject to the law, just like every other federal and state agency.
When a facility meets it permit requirements and the requirements of underlying applicable rules, as Sterigenics is and has been, then EPA and IEPA do not have the legal authority to declare them out of compliance just because a newspaper reporter thinks the facility presents an unusual and unacceptable danger.
The EPA and IEPA is charged with framing regulations and control requirements within the legal framework established by the legislatures in control of each. That framework includes the regulation of 187 hazardous air pollutants, of which ethylene oxide is but one. If Congress erred in the framework it established for the regulation of hazardous air pollutants, then Hawthorne should say that. If Congress or the General Assembly has determined that EPA and/or IEPA has not fulfilled their legal obligations under the Clean Air Act and Illinois Environmental Protection Act, then he should say that. While I am often critical of both agencies when I believe they have over-stepped or misused their authority, I see no evidence that either has failed to use that authority to its fullest in this case. Both the “Trump EPA” and the “Pritzker IEPA” continue to fulfill their obligations under those pieces of legislation that established each and outlined their missions.
That is, I realize, a much less sexy story than mindlessly blaming the Donald for a scare-story that he had nothing to do with, I doubt he even knows exist and likely wouldn’t care about if he knew all the facts. But it’s sexy stories that keep the Trib in business and Hawthorne employed, so that’s what we get. And that’s why neither can be trusted.