Posts Tagged ‘EPA’


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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FOI DAILY DOSE: Drake catches a break, EPA releases confidential chemical names

Drake may have a few charges dropped in whistleblower case

Thomas Drake, a former National Security Agency official who leaked information about wasteful practices in the NSA to a Baltimore Sun reporter, may catch a break and have a few of the charges he faces dropped from his court case.

Drake is being tried under the Espionage Act of 1917 for willfully retaining classified documents, among other charges.

Federal prosecutors will withdraw key documents from the case to protect sensitive technology information, but this may hurt their efforts to prove Drake violated the Espionage Act.

Prosecutors decided to redact the records after U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett ruled they couldn’t substitute classified information with unclassified language without hurting Drake’s ability to defend himself against the charges.

Two counts related to information Drake sent to the Defense Department inspector general to support colleagues’ complaints about the abuses surrounding an NSA program called Trailblazer may be dropped. Drake and his coworkers thought their complaints were confidential, and the evidence for those charges are contained in exhibits that will be withdrawn from court proceedings.

Another charge that may be dropped also involves information Drake sent to the inspector general. The exhibit that bolsters this charge will be redacted.

Two other charges concern information Drake had but which was also available on the in-house intranet for the NSA. Drake could argue that this material was unclassified and easily available to thousands of other employees.

The remaining charges against Drake, which include counts of making a false statement and obstructing justice, are less vital.

This could be a lucky break for Drake and his defense team.

EPA goes public with confidential chemical names

The EPA recently released the names of more than 150 chemicals that had previously been kept confidential in safety and health studies.

The move increases transparency within the agency and gives citizens access to information about chemicals that may carry potential health risks.

The American Chemistry Council, a trade association that represents the chemical industry, said in a statement to iWatch News that it agreed it was important to educate the public about potential chemical risks. But at the same time, some information should be protected to ensure businesses can remain competitive in the industry.

Some of the now-declassified documents were voluntarily disclosed by companies in honor of the EPA’s 2010 request that businesses disclose some of their confidential business information (CBI).

EPA policy will require companies to disclose the names of any chemicals on the agency’s public inventory list if they are mentioned in safety or health studies.

About 17,000 chemicals out of the more than 83,000 that are listed on the agency’s master inventory, however, do not have information about them publicly available, according to a 2009 Environmental Working Group study.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

FOI DAILY DOSE: WikiLeaks founder wins journalism award, EPA oversight threatened

Julian Assange wins journalism award

WikiLeaks founder and head honcho Julian Assange has won the 2011 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism.

The annual award is presented to a journalist who has “told an unpalatable truth that exposes establishment propaganda.”

The 2011 judges said in their citation for the prize that Assange “represents that which journalists once prided themselves in – he’s brave, determined, independent: a true agent of people not power.”

WikiLeaks has become a point of controversy in discussions of transparency, especially concerning the criminal charges against alleged WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning.

The six judges voted unanimously for Assange.

House bill jeopardizes EPA oversight

A House bill introduced last week supports the removal of federal oversight from the Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011 would strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of its ability to revise state water quality standards, veto U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge and fill permits and oppose state-approved permits issued under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

The measure was introduced by representatives John Mica (R-FL) and Nick Rahall (D-WV).

Mica, in a press release, said that the EPA “continues to strangle economic growth in this country with its overreaching and arbitrary regulatory regime.”

According to an OMB Watch blog post, however, the agency is following statutory mandates and is not overstepping its bounds.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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