Letters from Environmental and News Organizations Charge that EPA’s Changes Will Grant More Control Over Public Records to Political Staff
Washington, D.C. — Today, 17 public interest groups sent a letter to U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler expressing their strong concerns regarding EPA’s recent rule updating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which allows the public access to information about EPA actions.
The rule, which was not preceded by any public comment period, inappropriately authorizes political appointees to issue FOIA determinations and creates new bases for withholding records that contradict both FOIA and judicial precedent, according to the letter, which was written by the Environmental Integrity Project and signed by Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and other groups listed below.
The Trump Administration’s policy effectively permits political appointees – including EPA administrators – to assume direct authority to deny FOIA requests themselves, and attempts to extend the agency’s ability to withhold records beyond the nine exemptions enumerated under FOIA.
“Any politicization of FOIA undermines its core functions of enabling the public to inform itself on what its government is up to, and to hold officials accountable for those actions. This is precisely why prior administrations, from both sides of the aisle, have historically taken pains to partition political appointees from FOIA processes,” states the letter signed by Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and 16 other advocates.
In a separate letter, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press and 38 news organizations — including The New York Times, the Associated Press and NPR — wrote to the EPA Administrator complaining strongly about the new policy.
“The News Media Coalition is deeply concerned about the Proposed Rule, which contains provisions that undermine the Act, are impermissible under clear, binding D.C. Circuit precedent, and would diminish journalists’ ability to gather and report information to the public about the actions of the EPA and its personnel,” the news group letter says.
The Environmental Integrity Project letter with allies strongly urges EPA to delay implementation of the rule to allow for a public comment period, in accordance with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA): “To do otherwise would contravene not only the clear law, but basic tenets of good governance, rational decision-making, and your [Andrew Wheeler’s] stated commitment to transparency and re-establishing the public trust in EPA’s actions.”
The environmental groups, all non-profit organizations with longstanding reliance on FOIA, are concerned the rule will impair the public’s right and ability to apprise itself of important agency actions.
Because recent FOIAs by the Environmental Integrity Project and other public interest groups and media outlets have revealed numerous embarrassing and even career-ending scandals for former Administrator Pruitt and others, “EPA’s changes suggest that EPA is attempting to limit transparency and grant more control over records to political staff in response – a suspicion necessarily bolstered by EPA’s failure to allow any opportunity for public comment,” states the environmental group letter.
The potential for political staff to abuse of the FOIA process is exacerbated by the rule’s substantial revision requiring all FOIA requests to be submitted directly to EPA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. – the precise office where the majority of political appointees are staffed.
“It is difficult to see how this change could possibly improve the Agency’s FOIA efficiency or enhance the public’s lawful access to information,” states the letter. “As EPA has been experiencing pervasive issues meeting its FOIA obligations in the past two years as it is, and has frequently invoked a lack of resources and staff to justify its delays in processing FOIA requests, the wisdom of adding these additional procedural hurdles – which are neither necessary nor recommended by EPA’s own FOIA staff – is highly questionable.”
The groups strongly disagree with EPA’s assertion that public discussion of this rulemaking is “impracticable, unnecessary, or contrary to the public interest,” as well as EPA’s characterization of this rule as making “minor and purely ministerial changes” within the scope of the procedural exemption.
Letter signatories include: The Environmental Integrity Project, Center for Biological Diversity, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Center, Environmental Defense Fund, Essential Information, Food & Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, the Harvard Law School Emmet Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northwest Environmental Advocates, Our Children’s Earth Foundation, Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Project on Government Oversight.
Additional organizations can add their support to the environmental group letter by contacting Griffin Bird.
The list of news organizations signing the letter from the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press includes the following:
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
American Society of News Editors
The Associated Press
Associated Press Media Editors
Association of Alternative Newsmedia
Cable News Network, Inc.
The Center for Public Integrity
Courthouse News Service
The Daily Beast Company LLC
The E.W. Scripps Company
First Amendment Coalition
Gannett Co., Inc.
GateHouse Media, LLC
Inter American Press Association
International Documentary Assn.
Investigative Reporting Program
Investigative Reporting Workshop at
Los Angeles Times Communications LLC
The McClatchy Company
The Media Institute
MediaNews Group Inc.
National Freedom of Information Coalition
The National Press Club
National Press Club Journalism Institute
National Press Photographers Association
National Public Radio, Inc.
The New York Times Company
The New Yorker
The NewsGuild – CWA
Online News Association
Radio Television Digital News Association
Reuters News & Media Inc.
Reveal from The Center for Investigative
Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc.
Society of Environmental Journalists
Society of Professional Journalists
Student Press Law Center
Media contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (443) 510-2574 or firstname.lastname@example.org