Are we out of the woods yet? The FOIA fight with the U.S. Forest Service

Nature-lover or not, almost every child in America can recognize Smokey the Bear, the iconic ursine emblem of the U.S. Forest Service. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of efforts to recycle paper, or to prevent wildfires. When it comes to educational material and campaigning — things the Forest Service wants the public to know — communication is free-flowing. But it isn’t always that easy with the USFS; in fact, they are one of the most secretive agencies environmental reporters will encounter.

The U.S. Forest Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, oversees 193 million acres of forest, grasslands, wetlands, and lakes, including private, public and tribal lands. The agency, led by Chief Tom Tidwell, is organized into 9 regions, each with its own FOIA contact.  The USFS is responsible for preventing and responding to forest fires, managing over 1,000 campgrounds, and conducting research on ecosystems and climate change. It seems like there shouldn’t be a problem requesting documents and data related to these topics; as past SPJ President and current FOI Committee Chairman David Cuillier put it, the USFS doesn’t exactly protect national security secrets. But for some reason, the agency has been shutting the media out, forming a rift between scientists and journalists.

Regional Offices of the US Forest Service, http://www.fs.fed.us/

Regional Offices of the US Forest Service, http://www.fs.fed.us/

The USFS’s recent failure to provide material pivotal in journalist Rhiannon Fionn’s investigation of drinking water contaminants led to the agency being ‘awarded’SPJ’s 2014 Black Hole Award. Fionn told SPJ that she attempted to interview an expert USFS scientist for her story over the course of a year, but was repeatedly redirected to public information officials and eventually told she could only do a scripted interview, which would be reviewed by the Office of Ethics in Washington D.C. Fionn refused, calling the agency’s behavior overt censorship and a threat to the public’s right to know.

Email correspondence between journalist Rhiannon Fionn and USFS scientist Dr. Dennis Lemly, as published in Coal Ash Chronicles.

Email correspondence between journalist Rhiannon Fionn and USFS scientist Dr. Dennis Lemly, as published in Coal Ash Chronicles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem is, Fionn is not the only journalist who has encountered this roadblock. Four years earlier, Society of Environmental Journalists member Christy George shared a similar experience. As George was sitting down to interview a USFS scientist from Oregon, he received a phone call from the head communications official in D.C., ordering him to end the interview. There was never any explanation, George says, even though she had requested the interview days earlier and gotten it pre-approved by his supervisors. Read about her experience here.

Photographers, videographers, and documentarians were further threatened by imprecise wording on a set of rules from 2014 that would require a $1,500 permit for shooting projects on National Forest Wilderness land. Although aimed at commercial companies, journalists and other media groups feared for their First Amendment rights and protested for a specific exclusion. Chief Tidwell sent out a memo to agency leaders reaffirming journalism as a public service and giving the green light for news coverage “including, but not limited to breaking news, b-roll, feature news, news documentaries, long-form pieces, background, blogs, and any other act that could be considered related to news-gathering.” Encouraging, but the real issue is the weak and ineffective media policies that make this kind of miscommunication possible.

The Center for Science and Democracy agreed in their 2015 Government Transparency report , shaming the Department of Agriculture as a whole with C- in media policy, and a D in social media.  The USDA has not updated its general communications policy since 2003, the report says, and falls short of providing access to drafts and revisions, the explicit right of last review, and whistle-blower protection. “‘Loose lips sink ships’ appears to be management’s motivation.” — one anonymous USDA scientist says regarding the agency’s social media policy, which also stifles scientists’ rights to discuss research and hold personal views.

The Center for Science and Democracy's 2015 Report: Grading Government Transparency: Scientists' Freedom to Speak (and Tweet) at Federal Agencies, http://www.ucsusa.org

The Center for Science and Democracy’s 2015 Report: Grading Government Transparency: Scientists’ Freedom to Speak (and Tweet) at Federal Agencies, http://www.ucsusa.org

One doesn’t need to try too hard to find examples of Forest Service’s shortcomings. While the up-to-date budget performance information is explicitly listed right under the agency’s “about” tab, the other reports about regulations and policies were unavailable; the page listed as “under construction” when I attempted to access it earlier this week. As for the USFS FOIA site, it either has not been updated in a while, or all of the “frequently requested reports” are truly from 2008.

By no means does this suggest journalists should give up on requesting information from the Forest Service. But it helps to have some background information on the agency’s track record and to be prepared for common challenges faced in making a FOIA request. Here are some important takeaways from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Freedom of Information report.

– The USDA receives about 20,000 FOIA requests per year, 10 percent of which are for the Forest Service. In 2014, the Forest Service received 1,939 new requests. Of those 1,939 requests, 1,889 were processed. Yet only 825 (45%) were granted the full requested information, 601 (32%) were partially granted, and 248 (13%) were either withdrawn or referred to other agencies or departments.

– Reasons for denials: The most popular denial reason during 2014 was cited as “no records.” The most frequently cited FOIA exemption was Exemption 6, which deals with personal privacy interests. The Forest Service claimed that the information was protected because it dealt with ownership of historic and/or archaeological resources.

– Processing time: The average time to process a simple request is 27 days, whereas more complicated requests take about 50 days. Expedited requests are processed within 30 days (the average being 13 days).  Backlogs are common, the ten oldest outstanding requests are between 2 and 3 years old.

– Resources: From 2010 to 2013, the Forest Service maintained a staff of about 75 full-time FOIA employees. But in 2014, the number of staff  suddenly dropped to 25. Processing requests cost the agency anywhere between $2.5 and $3 million per year from 2010 to 2013, although litigation fees never surpassed $6,000. However, last year, $25,000 was spent on litigation, whereas only $70,000 was spent on processing requests.

– Record Keeping: The USDA adopted a new internal online database in 2011 to keep track of public records requests. This information is used to submit to the Department of Justice for their annual report and to record and determine the status of FOI requests. Anyone can submit a written request for information pertaining to themselves and their individual request.

The USFS FOIA Service Center can be contacted at 14 Independence Ave SW, Mailstop 1143, in Washington D.C., via fax to 202-649-1167, or via email to wo_foia@fs.fed.us.

Do you have a Forest Service experience to share? Tweet @amayrianne or email amayrianne@spj.org. 

http://www.fs.fed.us/

http://www.fs.fed.us/

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Shaking things up: Michael Corey on reporting earthquakes in fracking’s boom time

“And as we all know, Oklahoma has more earthquakes than California,” the seismologist said. But until Michael Corey from the Center for Investigative Reporting attended the American Geophysical Union conference last December, he hadn’t known that. Corey, who had previously covered earthquakes in his home state of California, was shocked. He had a new story.

Using earthquake catalogs and science scripts from the US Geological Survey, the Oklahoma Geological Survey, and the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, Corey mapped seismic activity against state boundary lines. He discovered a surprising truth. Over the last decade, Oklahoma, a state with historically few earthquakes, had progressively become three times more active than California.

By Michael Corey, Center for Investigative Reporting

By Michael Corey, Center for Investigative Reporting

See the interactive map.

The question was why. In Corey’s original article from February, he uncovered that the likely cause of the earthquakes was an increase in injection wells, underground tanks where the polluted water from fracking is stored. But the oil companies were “a brick wall” and denied any responsibility, he said, so he relied on scientific studies to look for answers.

The majority of scientists and seismologists were incredibly cooperative, Corey says. They wanted the data to be used and made public, and helped to walk him through the interpretation of the information. However, that wasn’t the case with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, where both the interim director and lead seismologist could not be reached for comment. Corey also relied on court documents, in which a resident sued an oil company, building codes, and state emergency plans to report his story.

One problem was that “induced seismic activity (aka human-caused) is omitted from the USGS hazards model because the agency hasn’t decided how to quantify the risk. Meanwhile, Building Seismic Safety Councils rely on these models to update their code requirements every five years. With old or inaccurate information, Oklahoma’s architecture is left vulnerable. In this case the information is there, but no one really knows what do with it.

Listening to the Science: An Unconventional Way to Use Data in Your Reporting  

Corey decided to listen to the data. In a radio broadcast story debuted this weekend, Corey used an audio track to simulate the increase in earthquakes over time. He downloaded earthquake catalog data from the last decade from the Northern California Earthquake Data Center, and translated each data point through a synthesizer. Now each earthquake, represented by a chime-like “ping,” could be heard and imagined, different pitches and frequencies corresponding to stronger or weaker seismic activity.

It was a good alternative for a radio story, in which documents and data could be read aloud but not visualized. By 2014, the audio track is a constant clanging of bells and chimes, illustrating the severity of Oklahoma’s earthquakes. This, coupled with interviews, brought life to a story built primarily on geological data and scientific jargon.

“For the radio story we had to put more emphasis on the human voice,” Corey explained.  “With no documents or figures to show, we instead set scenes and characters, and bring in people who have experienced earthquakes.”

Listen to the full broadcast here.

Corey offers some advice to environmental journalists looking to report similar stories.

Michael Corey, www.revealnews.org

Michael Corey, www.revealnews.org

Get involved. Corey got the idea for his story attending his first geoscience conference. Not only do conferences and events like this generate ideas, they will also link you to important sources.

Seek a second opinion. Scientists, like journalists, rely on multiple sources before stating something as fact. Peer reviewed journals are your best bet, says Corey. This is especially true with oil company stories, where companies employ full-time researchers whose findings may be biased.

Become tech-savvy. In addition to the audio synthesizer track, Corey created visualizations and completed data analysis using tools like Quantum GIS and Python.

Stay modest.You’re not going to understand everything, so follow up and read about it. Show interest in the topic, but be careful not to write before you understand the issue. You could end up getting a lot wrong,” he warns.

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

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Know NOAA: Freedom of information story ideas from the air and sea

“NOAA reaches from the bottom of the sea to the surface of the sun, and touches every aspect of our daily lives,” a 40-minute introductory video (found online) instructs new agency employees. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posts an incredible amount of its employee expectations and administrative orders online, although locating the information requires patience, curiosity, and a deep dive though hyperlinks and sister sites.

But NOAA makes sure FOIA is something its employees learn about early on. Transparency is one of the few policies that has its own site: complete with training and tutorials for employees, contacts for the media, (actual FOI officers, not just media relations) and the verbatim administrative order complete with a list of descriptive terms and detailed information of who can reject an FOI request, and why.

Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator since March 6, 2014, reaffirms NOAA’s policy to open information in an introductory video.

Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator since March 6, 2014, reaffirms NOAA’s policy to open information in an introductory video.

In 2007, NOAA implemented a new rule closing the gap between scientists and the media. DAO 219-1, gives researchers and scientists explicit permission to share the results, aka “Fundamental Research Communications” of scientific and engineering research with the public, without prior NOAA approval. This includes media interviews, DAO 219-1 states, which can, but don’t have to be, approved and facilitated by public affairs. All information must be “on the record,” although employees can decline the initial interview.

For newshounds, it would seem as though NOAA had thrown a bone to the dogs. But even five years later, the Society of Environmental Journalists noted despite the open information policy, there were problems with additional policy guidelines and a lack of enforcement.

“That guidance document itself is problematic. Section 8, ‘Official Communication with the News Media,’ requires advance approval by the public affairs office whenever NOAA staff scientists give interviews or otherwise make statements about their work. The policy further generally requires public affairs officials to sit in on all interviews unless other arrangements are approved by the public affairs staff.These sorts of limitations on scientists’ communications with the news media (and through the media, the public) are simply unacceptable in a free society.” 

NOAA responded, stating an intention to work with counsel at the Department of Commerce (which oversees the agency and implements the DAO) to determine whether changes would be necessary. The most current version is here.

But here’s one issue with NOAA: There’s too much information, at least too much to sift through to find an easy answer to my preliminary question. As an environmental journalist, what can I learn from them? What kind of information do they provide, and what kind of stories can I write using the information? The bottom of the sea to the surface of the sun…it’s kind of a wide range. So what does NOAA actually do?

noaa.gov

noaa.gov

According to Administrator Sullivan and the NOAA intro video, NOAA’s purpose is to

  • maintain commercial fishing so fisherman can maintain a livelihood (includes aquaculture)
  • keep environment clean (through work with the US Coast Guard during oil spills)
  • maintain natural resource damage assessments, which assess damage and issue regulations regarding natural resources such as shorelines, vegetation, fisheries, animal life
  • collect remediation from responsible companies to restore environment after oil spill
  • provide climate forecasts to help agriculture determine which crops to plant and when
  • monitor hurricanes and extreme weather events and notify and prepare communities
  • help satellite operators prepare for disruption during solar weather forecasts
  • protect endangered species
  • protect life and property and enhances national economy
  • monitor aquatic areas for pesticide levels
Organization of NOAA's Departments, from noaa.gov

Organization of NOAA’s Departments, from noaa.gov

Recent stories citing NOAA include updates oil spill near Santa Barbara, Calif., and Greenwire’s expose of seafood fraud in aquaculture. But if there’s one thing NOAA has, it’s a wealth of climatic, environmental and economic data, including easily overlooked resources like satellite imagery and arctic ice report cards.  The potential for stories is endless, and maybe it’s impossible to cover them all. See the chart below for publication dates and your own story ideas.

NOAA/NCDC Climate Data and Services Daily
NOAA/NCDC World Ocean Database Quarterly
NOAA/NCDC Earth System Monitor The Earth System Monitor is a free publication that reports on NOAA environmental data and information programs, projects, and activities. We no longer have a mailing list. However, you can subscribe to the ESM RSS feed and be notified immediately when the e-version is published. Semi-Annually
NOAA/NMFS Fishery Market News Quarterly, Monthly, Weekly and Daily
NOAA/NMFS U.S. Foreign Trade in Fishery Products Monthly and Annual
NOAA/NMFS Recreational Fisheries Statistics Annual
NOAA/NMFS Commercial Fisheries Statistics Annual
NOAA/NMFS Fisheries Statistics of the US Annual
NOAA/NOS CO-OPS Tides and Currents Available on a real time basis
NOAA/NOS Web Mapping Portal to Real-Time Coastal Observations and NOAA Forecasts Daily
NOAA/NWS NOAAWatch
(NOAA Storms and Hazards Portal)
Daily
NOAA/NWS Weather Forecast Four times daily: 4 am; 11 am;
4 pm; & 10 pm (local time)
NOAA/NWS Warnings, watches, alerts & advisories Available on a real time basis
NOAA/NWS Graphical Forecasts Daily
NOAA/NWS National Maps Updated twice daily
NOAA/NWS National Radar Mosaic Sectors Available on a real time basis
NOAA/NWS Air Quality Forecast Guidance Shows Air Quality Guidance as 1-hr and 8-hr ozone concentration averages for the N.E. US updated twice daily.
NOAA/NWS Preliminary Climate Data Daily
NOAA/NWS Hydrologic Observations and Forecasts Available on a real time basis
NOAA/NWS Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow (CoCoRaHS) network Daily
NOAA/NWS Graphical Airman ‘s Meteorological Advisory (G-AIRMET) Updated every 6 hours as required by forecast aviation hazards
NOAA/NWS Hourly Multi-Sensor Precipitation Estimate Web-Based Service Hourly
NOAA/OAR National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Daily

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

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Big oil, bad air, good reporting: How InsideClimate News reporter Lisa Song stuck with it (and so can you)

For three days, InsideClimate News reporter Lisa Song sat rifling through public records documents in the file-reading room of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The unwavering eyes of a government-appointed paralegal watched her every move, making sure Song did not copy or try to smuggle the papers.

“It was like having a babysitter,” Song said when we met up at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Philadelphia.

The problem was the records Song was reviewing were supposed to be public — available to anyone — but a miscommunication between her FOIA case record agent and the TCEQ led to Song flying from Boston to Austin to read the information. She could have copied the documents and returned to Boston, but would have been expected to pay $3,400, she said.

Song was looking at communications among Texas state toxicologists, in order to report on a story about the state’s recently weakened chemical guidelines and the potential ramifications on air quality.

The eventual story, a year-and-a-half-long series published in collaboration with the Weather Channel and the Center for Public Integrity, was titled “Big Oil, Bad Air.” The story exposed major air pollution within the Eagle Ford Shale, a 400-mile-long stretch of oil and gas drilling sites.

Companies are required to report certain air emissions to environmental agencies under the Clean Air Act. But Texas doesn’t require all of the production facilities to file emissions data with the state; instead, they allowed a “self-audit” policy. However, using air permits granted to some of the other companies, Song and her team discovered other sites had permission to release almost 190 tons of toxic chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde every year.

It wasn’t an easy investigation, Song recalls. Texas is an “oil and gas state,” so even government agencies are dealing with financial conflicts of interest, as agency leaders such as those at the TCEQ are appointed by the governor himself and other officials have financial incentives to support the industry.  She and her colleagues filed over fifty open records requests for investigation reports, oil and gas pollution inventories, enforcement actions, agency communications and personnel files, a dozen of which were state attorney general’s office because the TCEQ wanted the documents withheld, she said.

GROWING PROBLEM

It’s becoming a growing problem, according to Song, and not just in Texas. Regulations and disclosure rules vary among states, but environmental journalists are meeting a lack of transparency from agencies across the board. Face-to-face interviews with EPA officials are almost nonexistent, and email is the preferred method of communication; A reporter who tries to call a source at the EPA will most likely be shuttled through public information officers and media relations. FOIA requests can take a year or more to be granted. Song spent three months trying to get an interview with EPA, who in this story should have stepped in when the Texas state agency failed. And in her personal experience, the USDA and U.S. Forest Service are even more elusive.

But oil companies are the worst. Although she didn’t have to deal with the trade secret problem associated with most of these oil-and-gas stories, she faced backlash and allegations from the public relations arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Song’s colleague David Hasemyer also faced challenges. Officials from the TCEQ and the Railroad Commission of Texas (also involved in the story) refused to grant interviews. At one point Hasemyer was berated by an agency spokesperson for attempting to call TCEQ inspectors at their homes and was physically stopped from approaching a commission chairman at a public meeting.

Fortunately the journalists prevailed, even leading to an air pollution monitor being installed in nearby Karnes County, Texas, and a criminal inquiry into the actions of two inspectors named in the story. It’s a cautionary tale for other states that are eager for fracking’s rewards, Song and her colleagues wrote in a report to Investigative Reporters and Editors, who in addition to SPJ, nominated the story for an award.

One of Song and Hasemyer’s infographics was awarded a 2014 Sigma Delta Chi Award from SPJ.

Song shares how they did it:

  • Documents:
    • Campaign contribution disclosure statements from the Texas Ethics Commission
    • Civil lawsuits on fracking and air pollution.
    • State legislation that aimed to strengthen or weaken air pollution regulations.
    • Science and engineering studies about fracking and public health published in peer-reviewed journals, conference proceedings and government reports.
    • Transcripts and videos from public hearings
    • New source review air permits
  • Interviews
    • 12 trips to shale drilling regions in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana
    • Scientists and engineers from universities, consulting firms, regulatory agencies, environmental groups and industry
    • Most public officials and industry representatives refused to speak on the phone or to meet in person, and only answered questions via email
    • Residents in Eagle Ford affected by pollution
  • Data Analysis

Reporters don’t need to live in Texas to replicate this story for their own hometown or beat. Refer to your state or region’s database of emission releases and review the Clean Air Act for more information.

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

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Know your hometown: Small stories make the biggest difference.

The majority of my posts this summer will focus on federal environmental agencies, laws and policies. However, for most journalists, we are far more likely to report local news: the pollution-producing factory that came to town, the sudden increase in bacteria in a nearby lake, or the decrease in funding for science programs at the city’s middle school.

The stories that hit us and our audience the hardest. The ones we remember.

I grew up in Merrimack, a moderately sized suburb in southern New Hampshire known for moose, maple syrup, and New England’s Anhueser-Busch brewery. I remember the first environmental story I heard about my hometown, even though it occurred more than a decade ago, when I was 12 and more concerned with reading Tiger Beat than the newspaper. As I think about the story now, I wonder how I would go about reporting it, now knowing the resources and information available.

Merrimack, NH

Merrimack, NH

The Scoop

In March 2004, a beaver dam on private land was mysteriously demolished. Within a week, four other dams, these on town-owned conservation land, were also destroyed.  The Merrimack police partnered with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department to locate the suspect responsible for destroying the dams, a crime that carried a fine of $5,000. As a result of the lost dams, beavers abandoned the wetland area, the water level sank by four feet, and fish and bird populations were threatened. Environmental officials predicted it would take two years for the ecosystem to recover.

Read the original full story from the NH Business Review here.

While it’s not the hard-hitting news breakthrough that would shock a nation, my town reacted. I remember residents who lived near wetlands forming a makeshift neighborhood watch committee to prevent further damage to dams. Others got to work patching the dams to reverse the damage. School kids adopted the beaver as their favorite animal. People suddenly cared. The community came together and created an online forum (high-tech in those days!) to share updates until the suspect turned himself in.

American Beaver by blog.nwf.org

American Beaver by blog.nwf.org

Reporting Today

But what if this story had happened in 2015? How would I go about reporting it, who would I contact, what documents would I request, and what would my impact be? As an experiment (I am half-scientist, after all), I decided to see if I could recreate the story and retrace the journalists’ steps using public information available now.

Step 1: The Police Report

My first step in investigating this local crime begins with those first on the scene: police. Merrimack Police Department keeps a well-maintained website, which includes PDFs of daily call logs, up-to-date press releases, and even a map illustrating where each category of incident (vandalism, in the case of the beavers) incident occurs. A request for the suspect’s criminal record if convicted from the NH State Police Department may prove difficult, costly, and time-consuming, but could also make for an interesting story.

However, nothing outweighs speaking to the actual officers: Merrimack lists contact information for general inquiries, as well as emails for captains and lieutenants. As for the police report or the arrest record for the suspect, these require an in-person trip to the station and can be complicated by Fifth Amendment rights during an open investigation.

Step 2: The Law

So…the we called the police. What now? Destroying beaver dams sounds cruel, but is it illegal? A simple Google search (literally, “NH law beaver dams”) turns up the original wording of the official-sounding “TITLE XVIII FISH AND GAME CHAPTER 210 FUR-BEARING ANIMALS Beaver Section 210:9.” Past cases and violators can be found through the NH State Court’s new E-court Project, although the system was implemented only a few years ago and doesn’t include the 2004 case.

Step 3: Moving Up the Ladder

The law is regulated at the state level through the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.  A quick glance through the Department’s website uncovers an interactive map that illustrates state-owned wildlife conservation areas and a copy of the state’s mandated wildlife action plan listing policies for land and resource management, as well as research and conservation plans for animals like beavers. The Law Enforcement Division’s mission statement is promising to those seeking information, citing an “obligation to respond to the increasing public demands in a timely and respectful manner. To be successful, the mission must be administered without prejudice, always mindful that in the execution of their duties they act not for themselves, but for the public. The enforcement division’s patrol map also names the particular official responsible for Merrimack (area 41).

Step 4: Follow Up and Impact

Don’t let the investigation stop here. A look into annual police reports or statistics from other towns or the state police can uncover patterns and elevate the story to a state or regional level. Or maybe there’s no larger meaning, but at least checking can add some extra practice in requesting and locating information.

Your Turn!

How would you report the story differently in your own hometown? Who else would you contact, or what other information would you seek? Have you encountered a particular office or agency  that was difficult to cooperate with? Share your own hometown story in the comments section here or email me or tweet @amayrianne.

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

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How to FOIA: Environmental Protection Agency

When an environmental story breaks, there’s one agency that always seems to get called for comment: the Environmental Protection Agency. “Environment” is in the name, after all. EPA handles between 9,000 and 12,000 Freedom of information requests each year, according to FOIA.gov, ranking it 15th among all government departments and federal agencies in amount of records requests. Their track record for processing and granting requests, when compared to other departments, isn’t half bad. It’s also not good. Out of over 12,600 total active FOIA requests in FY 2014, the EPA processed 10,130; or 80%. Processed doesn’t mean granted, however, and by the end of the calendar year, over 2,500 requests were still awaiting a decision.

Those aren’t the odds a reporter wants, but better than the 103,480 records sitting in backlog at the Department of Homeland Security or the 3,373-day-old request awaiting a decision at the Department of Defense.

http://www.foia.gov/data.html

http://www.foia.gov/data.html

 

Explore more FOIA stats here.

How does FOIA work at the EPA?

The EPA presumes government openness, its website claims, releasing national information and making discretionary decisions regarding state, private and possibly exempt requests. Filing a FOIA request is “neither complicated nor time-consuming,” the resource page reads. Experienced reporters would tell you it’s a false claim. Even though the agency promotes government transparency and provides several online resources, it remains one of the most difficult to contact or obtain information from, according to Christy George, former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Like with other departments, FOIA requests must be made in writing, either through snail mail or FOIAonline. The agency has twenty days to respond, but the clock starts ticking only after the specific information to be requested has been identified and any fees paid. Journalists may be charged $0.15 per page for photocopying after the first 100 pages. The 20-day response period can be extended by fee waiver proceedings, appeals processes to the National FOIA Officer, or with “large-scale” projects that require information from multiple agencies.

Nine exemptions may exclude your information of interest from being released by any department.

  1. Classified national defense and foreign relations information.
  2. Internal agency rules and practices.
  3. Information that is prohibited from disclosure by another federal law.
  4. Trade secrets and other confidential business information.
  5. Inter-agency or intra-agency communications that are protected by legal privileges.
  6. Information involving matters of personal privacy (protected under the Privacy Act or containing sensitive personally identifiable information).
  7. Information compiled for law enforcement purposes, to the extent that the production of those records:
    1. Could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.
    2. Would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication.
    3. Could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
    4. Could reasonably be expected to disclose the identity of a confidential source.
    5. Would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement, investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.
    6. Could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.
  8. Information relating to the supervision of financial institutions.
  9. Geological information on wells.

Number nine seems problematic, as many stories analyzing oil wells and fracking would need to rely on this information. But a larger challenge, says journalist Michael Corey from the Center of Investigative Reporting, is getting through the “stone wall” of trade secrets and noncompliance of large industrial companies. Companies the EPA has the power to regulate, but not the power to expose.

Contacting the EPA

EPA is divided into ten regions, each with its own Regional Freedom of Information Officer. Contact information is listed on the EPA’s official website along with a map in case you don’t know your particular region’s number or officer.

Requests can also be made through EPA headquarters, and nearly 2,000 records are every year. Surprisingly, Regions 5 (IL, IN, MI, MN, OH, WI) and 2 (NJ, NY, PR, VI) are just as busy as headquarters, if not more so, but grant a higher percentage of requests per year. The general consensus among environmental reporters, says Inside Climate News reporter Lisa Song, is that regional staff are more helpful than EPA headquarters, which communicate almost completely by email and consistently shuttle interviews through public information officers rather than expert scientists and officials.

EPA FOIA requests by region, data from http://www.foia.gov/data.html.

EPA FOIA requests by region, data from http://www.foia.gov/data.html.

Find your region and contact office here.

Find the agency organization chart here.

What is the EPA doing to improve FOI?

Under new administrator Gina McCarthy, EPA is releasing an increasing amount of data online (see some cool resources below). According to the 2015 Chief FOIA Officer’s Report to the US Justice Department (required of all agencies), embracing digital information has led to the release of over 300,000 online records since 2012. National topics include: climate change,  lead, asbestos, and a Reduce, Reuse, Recycle initiative. EPA reported last year that only 67 FOIA requests were denied and the time for expedited processing was reduced to 6.8 days.

However, the digital side also has its pitfalls. Question 16 of the report asks, “Do your agency’s FOIA professionals use e-mail or other electronic means to communicate with requesters whenever feasible?” Yes, says the EPA; which for journalists, also means that mere email responses from public information staff often take the place of face-to-face interviews with knowledgeable scientists or officials.

Read the entire report here.

Resources

My Environment is very neat and personalized link to track air and water quality, pollution levels, energy use, and health information for a given state, city, or zip code. The app also offers comparisons to previous years and compiles the data into graphical form. The My Maps extension creates downloadable interactive maps. If you have time, be sure to click on the plus signs and “Learn more” links to find deeper information. For example, this map below displays the water quality in my hometown, and clicking on the little blue symbol reveals the name of the company responsible for the toxic releases: JCI Jones Chemicals (no relation to yours truly). The raw data is also available for download.

Merrimack NH water data from EPA MyMaps app.

Merrimack NH water data from EPA MyMaps app.

National Service Center for Environmental Publications (NSCEP). This online collection includes factsheets, research findings, and policy guidelines dating back to 1976. Documents can be downloaded for free or paper copies can be ordered if in stock and available. However only five documents can be ordered within a two-week time frame and fees might apply for requesting out-of-stock documents from the National Technical Information Service.

The Environmental Database Gateway. A metadata collection of information from geospatial and nongeospatial sources, linked to an information resource and web-based map viewer. Data can be found via a simple or advanced search and the “reuse” capability means  users can output and embed search content.

Developer CentralThis website features over forty pages of apps created by third-party web developers based on EPA data. Top apps include “Right to Know” and “EPA UV index.” Most apps include source codes, and the original datasets can be found on the “Data Showcase.”

Environmental Protection Agency Website. Explore the agency’s official site to find a list of their associated research facilities, laws and executive orders, and financial and budget information and history.

Report

Now that you have these resources, how will you use them in your next story? Tweet @amayrianne with your ideas.

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley at amayrianne@spj.org or tweet @amayrianne.

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Police body cams should be FOIAble

In the past year, several deadly interactions between police and unarmed civilians have prompted law enforcement agencies nationwide to equip patrol officers with body-worn video cameras. Police and lawmakers hope use of cameras will improve interactions between officers and civilians, assist investigations of crimes and officer misconduct, and improve public trust of law enforcement officers.

Use of body-worn cameras poses thorny questions for police departments and legislators at the state and local levels, including when cameras will be turned on, circumstances under which they may be turned off, how long to keep recordings, and the purposes for which BWC video may be used.

The issue of concern to the SPJ is whether, and to what extent, body-worn camera video will be accessible to the public. That question has evoked vastly different responses from officials across the country – ranging from release on YouTube of low-resolution versions of all recordings by the Seattle Police Department, to a blanket Freedom of Information Act exemption proposed by the mayor of Washington, D.C.

Officials who argue against public disclosure make three arguments: that encounters between police and civilians frequently are embarrassing or involve sensitive issues; that disclosure might make solving crimes more difficult; and that responding to requests for BWC video will take officers away from more important tasks and break department budgets.

SPJ understands that public disclosure of BWC video may implicate privacy rights of individuals with whom officers interact, particularly when encounters occur in private places. We understand that in some cases there will be valid investigatory reasons to keep BWC recordings secret, at least temporarily. We understand that disclosing BWC recordings under public records laws will require police to devote resources to review and redact some recordings.

If the goal is to improve public trust in the police, denying the public access is likely to accomplish the opposite. If the goal is to protect privacy or the integrity of criminal investigations, state and local open records laws already include effective exemptions. If the goal is to reduce the cost of FOIA compliance, we might as well give up any pretense of government transparency.

Exempting BWC videos from disclosure will foster distrust because an open records law exemption is not a prohibition against disclosure, it merely allows an agency to withhold records. It is safe to assume that if BWC recordings portray officers in a good light or counter allegations of misconduct, police will move quickly to review and release video to news outlets. If, in response to allegations of misconduct, police cite an exemption to withhold video, many in the community will assume the worst, that officers have something to hide. That perception may be reinforced by bystanders’ cellphone video or accounts given to reporters.

SPJ is not alone in believing that existing FOIA exemptions are up to the task, and that BWC secrecy will harm police-community relations. The Fraternal Order of Police and the D.C. Office of Police Complains, the agency charged with investigating complaints against officers, joined SPJ’s D.C. Professional Chapter in opposing the proposed FOIA exemption.

Opponents of disclosure argue that encounters between officers and civilians often occur in dwellings or other places where individual privacy is an over-riding concern. But many such encounters occur in public places, and even when officers interact with civilians in private places, for example while making arrests, disclosure of the video might not rise to the level of a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Finally, proponents of BWC secrecy argue that without an exemption police departments will be forced to respond to a large number of requests for voluminous BWC recordings. They fear that many requests will come from neighborhood busy bodies and voyeurs. There are two major flaws in that argument:

  • This is a new technology and no one can predict how many seconds, minutes or hours of recordings would have to be reviewed, much less redacted, in response to an individual request. Although BWCs are new, they are not unique. Police have used CCTV and dashboard cameras for a decade or more, and law enforcement agencies have not been overwhelmed by requests for those videos.
  • The cost of responding to public records requests is never a justification for exempting an entire category of records from disclosure. The moment lawmakers decide that the cost of compliance justifies creating an exemption from disclosure, will mark the first step down a very slippery slope toward government secrecy.

Because most law enforcement agencies are just beginning BWC use, any attempt to gauge the average number of requests they will receive or how much video they would have to review and possibly redact in an average month would be speculative. Most interactions between officers on patrol and civilians last several minutes, not hours, and requested BWC recordings likely would be short.[1]

The open records request process undoubtedly will deter neighborhood busy bodies and voyeurs. Consider that when you make a FOIA request you do not get responsive records immediately. Police often have 10 business days — two weeks — or more to respond, and may be able to justify additional time to review and redact BWC video. For news outlets working on daily stories, use of BWC recordings will be limited to instances in which police affirmatively choose to release video. Only if a story will develop over a considerable period of time — a major crime, the recent events in Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death — will it be practical for a news outlet to request BWC recordings under the open records law.

Lawmakers should assume that a person who files a request has a significant interest in the police-civilian interaction at issue, because s/he is willing to wait weeks to get the video, and may have to file an administrative or judicial appeal if police deny the request. Giving police the ability to release video to suit their interests, but to invoke an FOIA exemption to deny the importance of a requester’s interest, sends a pretty clear and undesirable message — that the goal of the BWC program is to protect law enforcement agencies, not to build public trust.

[1] A study commissioned by Baltimore’s mayor estimates that the average police-civilian interaction last 13 minutes. Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s Working Group on the Use and Implementation of Body-Worn Cameras: Draft Recommendations February 18, 2015 (“Balto. Report”), 31. http://mayor.baltimorecity.gov/sites/default/files/20150218BWCWorkingGroupRecommendations.pdf. The report estimated that it would take 30 minutes and cost about $50 to review and redact 8 minutes of BWC video. Id.

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Meet SPJ’s 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information Fellow

The government works for us.” Five simple yet powerful words, instilled in me by Boston University data journalism professor Maggie Mulvihill, changed the course of my reporting career forever.

As an aspiring environmental journalist, I had envisioned myself writing stories from the field, National Geographic style, as opposed to poring over government data and documents and sending out FOIA requests. I just didn’t know how much information was out there, and all the possibilities open to me through investigative work. After publishing a campaign finance article covering major donors in Massachusetts, I realized, the real stories lie within those documents hidden in plain sight.

Yet as I’m sure fellow reporters who have relied on the freedom of information laws can attest: It doesn’t always seem like the government does work for us. In a single semester of beat reporting, I encountered government officials who were unfamiliar with public records laws, others who took months to respond, and — my personal pet peeve — others who sought payment for running of single pages of records (not exactly feasible for a college student on a low budget).

So why do journalists continue to fight the FOIA battle, to take on these in-depth, time-consuming, painstaking processes for a single story? I can only imagine it’s for the same reason I chose to learn more about FOIA through this SPJ fellowship: The information is important. It allows journalists to fulfill their roles as government watchdogs and occasionally, to make an important difference.

My desire to motivate change is concentrated on an area of admitted lesser prominence in journalism: environmental reporting. It’s a challenging beat riddled with scientific jargon, with controversy and uncertainty, and seemingly endless reams of obscure quantitative data. My passion stems from an undergraduate education in ecology and conservation biology, complete with a study abroad experience in the Amazon rainforest and an internship in environmental education.

Although many news outlets don’t provide regular environmental coverage, the focus on the beat has been growing. Articles about oil spills in California, Texas droughts, and President Obama’s plan to “Save the Bees” dominated my news feed this week. And I suspect the need for coverage will only increase, as will the need to collaborate with the EPA, Departments of Energy and Agriculture, and other government organizations with valuable data and documents to aid in reporting.

So how does FOIA play into environmental journalism? More importantly, why should journalists care about the environment, or cover these stories in their publications in the first place? These are the questions I hope to answer during my Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information fellowship with SPJ this summer.

ashleyjones

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow this blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley at amayrianne@spj.org or interact on Twitter: @amayrianne.

 

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Science Writers Survey Looks At Reporter-PIO Dealings

Science writers have a hard time getting candid information from government scientists. While the public information office sometimes helps connect the two, the PIO also can interfere with the reporting process to the point of keeping the public from getting all the information it needs. These are some of the findings of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee’s latest survey of reporters about their relationship with government public information offices. The survey of science writers was released April 9 at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The survey was cosponsored by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

 
Among other things, the science writers survey found that:
• Almost three quarters (74.2%) of respondents said that PIOs require reporters to get their approval before interviewing employees at least some of the time.
• More than half (52.2%) said that when they ask to interview a specific subject matter expert, their request for an interview is routed to a different agency employee by the PIO at least some of the time.
• 67.5% said they have to make multiple requests for information and interviews when they go through the public information office to get access to a subject matter expert at least some of the time.
• Reporters who got an interview often found the PIO sitting in on the interview either on the telephone or in person (31.8% some of the time, 19.5% most of the time, 6.5% all of the time).
• However, many science writers have figured out ways to interview subject matter experts without involving the public information office (34.2% some of the time, 21.9% most of the time, 10.3% all of the time). Often, these are people they cornered at a conference or meeting, or had a long-term relationship with.

 

Kathryn Foxhall, an SPJ FOI Committee member who has made a study of the PIO issue, said at Thursday’s conference that the problem of reporters being required to go through the PIO to talk to government employees is becoming widespread in recent years.
“Most basically, when reporters are required to go through PIOs to talk to anyone, the source people know they are under surveillance by the official structure and that changes everything. Likely enough, there is someone in the agency who could blow the whole story out of the water if the PIOs weren’t tracking who is talking to which reporter,” she said.
“Maybe the most frequent problem is not about hiding malfeasance. It may be the constant blockage of pieces of our education, so the whole understanding is weak,” she said. “However, often enough there is also just stone-cold manipulation of the message according to insiders’ ideas and desires, including political purposes.”

The report released April 9, which included survey results from science writers, was the fourth in a series of reports from the FOI committee since 2012. The first surveyed Washington¬‐area reporters who covered federal agencies. The second surveyed members of the Education Writers Association and the third was a national survey of state and local political reporters. FOI Committee member Carolyn Carlson led the research for these surveys.

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Every year has 52 ‘sunshine’ weeks

Sunshine Week celebrates access to public information and what it means to people and communities each year.

Much of the week focused on which public officials and governments with exceptionally good or poor track records of providing access to public information. As journalists and open government advocates, we must remain vigilant against and protest shadows in government and do our best to applaud those who try to get it right.

We can often get caught up in the story of the day and forget larger issues at stake when we push for compliance of legal requirements of email archival of federal officials and text messages of local elected leaders. Without competent, experienced journalists pushing for more information to share with the public, especially when the status quo resists, ideals of an informed democracy stumbles farther from reality.

Public records and sunshine laws lose value without journalists and other citizen watchdogs paying close attention and holding government accountable. We must do our part as advocates for transparency. This involves learning laws and policies related to specific governments.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press did a fantastic job of compiling open record and open meeting laws for each state. SPJ also created a great database to provide specific contacts in each state to assist with answering questions related to public records requests.

Along with public records laws, public record retention schedules provide invaluable information related to what records different public bodies have legal requirements to maintain and archive. Each state has standards that define particular public record categories and the minimum length of time required to maintain.

I have not yet found central location providing retention schedules for each state. However, they’re easily found in online searches.

If you haven’t filed an public records request, iFOIA can help walk you through the process. Also, the crowd-funded FOIA Machine can assist by automating public records requests, a service especially helpful when juggling multiple records requests simultaneously.

Discussing access to public information reminds me we must remain faithful to the bedrock principles found in the SPJ Code of Ethics. Two specific sections come to mind:

Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.

Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.

Shifting topics slightly, most of us have felt a direct impact of industry financial realities with as we embrace the digital world. Many of our own organizations’ balance sheets struggle as we push daily to do our jobs on behalf of and for the public. We must remember our responsibilities as journalists distinguish us from more agnostic terms like “content producer” used by some organizations.

More mediums exist to share stories the public needs to know to make informed decisions impacting every aspect of daily life. However, our ideals as journalists remain solid.

I take pride identifying myself as a journalist and related sense of mission. We have a noble cause essential to democracy functioning properly.

Sunshine Week extends for seven days each year, but we must push and prod for more sunshine during the other 358. It’s who we are and what we do.

Investigative reporter and Mississippi native Robbie Ward has a graduate degree in public policy and administration. He is based in Greenville, S.C., and tweets at @r0bbie_ward.

The views expressed in this blog post are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ FOI Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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