Posts Tagged ‘Texas’


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.

FOI Daily Dose: Open government strides in Lone Star State, stampers in Pennsylvania

Lawmakers in Texas passed a series of bills this week to protect reporters and promote open government. One of the most notable is Senate Bill 1368 (an update to the Texas Public Information Act) that keeps public officials from concealing official matters of business by corresponding over private email accounts and other electronic communications.

Such legislation would help reporters at the San Antonio Express-News who are trying to obtain emails that Texas County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson sent to constituents from his private email account regarding official business.

The Express-News won at trial court last fall, but Adkisson appealed to a state appellate court, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has supported the Express-News, arguing the emails should be disclosed.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to approve the proposed legislation.

But despite strides in the Lone Star State, the fight for access to information rages on in Pennsylvania, where the state Department of Environmental Protection is withholding answers about how its extensive natural gas drilling is affecting water contamination in residential wells.

Researchers, reporters, scientists and residents all have a stake in the matter, but the agency says their open records requests are “burdensome.” DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday told NBC10 Philadelphia that the agency receives 1,200 right-to-know requests each year, some of which are too “broadly worded.”

But since the DEP lost an open records case last year against the Scranton Times-Tribune, the Office of Open Records and the Commonwealth Court  have criticized it for poor record keeping.

Sunday, the DEP spokesman, told NBC10 the agency’s records are not incomplete and disorganized, and the DEP “continues to operate with the utmost transparency.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

Transparency Triumph of the Week: Texas gets an anti-SLAPP law

This week’s triumph goes to Texas, which became the 27th state to adopt anti-SLAPP legislation when Gov. Rick Perry signed an anti-SLAPP bill into law on June 17.

The law is called the Citizens Participation Act and protects citizens facing SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

These lawsuits are usually used in retaliation against people for using their right to freedom of speech. The purpose of such a suit isn’t always to win the case, but to intimidate critics.

In addition to Texas and the 26 other states that have adopted anti-SLAPP legislation, the District of Columbia also has a similar law. North Carolina and Congress are also looking at similar bills, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The Texas anti-SLAPP law includes provisions for people facing a SLAPP that allow them to bring a motion to dismiss within 60 days of when the lawsuit is first brought against them.

If a person can prove that his or her speech is constitutionally protected, then the other party must prove that it is still likely to win the lawsuit. If they can’t, the case is dismissed.

The losing side must pay court costs for both sides, and a judge can choose to sanction the party who filed the lawsuit to deter that person from filing similar suits later on.

The new Texas law also provides a broad definition of the kinds of situations in which one is considered to have spoken out on an issue of public concern. Applicable topics include health issues or comments on various products and services.

– 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 Links: Threatened whistleblowers in India and huge bonuses for federal workers

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