New EPA-wide policy makes FOIA review process more transparent, equitable, and functional
Washington, D.C. – Following a lawsuit brought by a pair of environmental groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has improved its document disclosure policy under federal open records law, the Freedom of Information Act.
The nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network brought the lawsuit in part to challenge EPA’s previous policy and practice of allowing senior staff to delay FOIA production until they reviewed and approved of such disclosures.
The new policy, which was distributed internally to EPA staff on Nov. 16, imposes a maximum three-day limit for these so-called “awareness reviews,” which, the memo clarifies, are only intended to make senior officials aware of select releases before they go out.
The move decreases the politicization of the FOIA process at EPA. Instead of the prior practice of allowing political appointees to make decisions regarding approval, withholding, or release of records, those decisions are now properly the responsibility of EPA’s FOIA team, which is made up of civil servants. The FOIA team must also release records at the end of that three-day period regardless of whether the request has actually been reviewed.
“This new EPA policy is good news. It makes clear that the agency can’t use political reviews to hold up responses to Freedom of Information Act requests,” said Sanghyun Lee, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. “Our lawsuit, and several letters from U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, cited evidence that these reviews were being used to block or delay responses to requests from environmental and public health organizations this administration doesn’t like very much. The new guidance gives the agency’s Chief of Staff and other political managers a three day advance notice before sensitive documents are released, but no power to block those disclosures.”
“Public information should be just that: public,” said Anne Havemann, General Counsel for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which partnered with EIP on the lawsuit challenging the administration’s information delays. “Instead, the Trump Administration has been dragging its feet and obstructing legitimate information requests. It’s unfortunate that it took a lawsuit to force EPA to release this information, but we’re glad to see the agency switch gears.”
As a result of this policy change, the two organizations will drop the policy-related claim in their lawsuit. They are still challenging EPA’s failure to respond to specific FOIA requests.
For a copy of the EPA memo, click here.
Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 888-2703
Or Anne Havemann, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, email@example.com or (240) 396-1984 (o)
The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that empowers communities and protects public health and the environment by investigating polluters, holding them accountable under the law, and strengthening public policy.
The Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) is the first grassroots, nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to fighting global warming in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.