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FOI Act lawsuit sparks release of environmental records

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   July 13, 2005

FOI Act lawsuit sparks release of environmental records

  • The Environmental Protection Agency released chemical plant risk management plans to a nonprofit group this week in response to its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, filed in June after the agency stalled the nonprofit’s administrative appeal of the records’ closure for two years.

July 13, 2005  ·   Nearly four years after yanking the information from its Web site, the Environmental Protection Agency has released information about the nation’s chemical plants in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the nonprofit organization OMB Watch.

The group sued in June after its administrative appeal to EPA for access to chemical risk management plans idled for two years. The plans explain the “operations, safety equipment, accident prevention and response plans, and accident history” of chemical plants throughout the country.

The EPA removed the plans from its Web site after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, promising that they would be reposted “as soon as possible.” In light of the attacks, the agency wrote, it wanted to assess “how best to make the information publicly available.”

In 2003 OMB Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the records, which the EPA denied despite the explicit provisions of the Clean Air Act of 1990 that risk management plans are to be collected from private industry for use by the communities at risk. The agency claimed that the plans are “internal agency rules” protected under Exemption 2 of the FOI Act, an exemption the government has used increasingly claiming that terrorists might learn about “vulnerabilities” described in records.

Thirty days after the suit was filed, EPA released the risk management plans with no explanation.

OMB Watch initially filed an administrative appeal of the records denial, but sued after waiting two years with no agency response. “The public . . . has a vital interest in understanding, and participating in, the risk management process to ensure its own safety,” the complaint said. “Communities use RMP information to proactively engage with neighboring facilities and help prevent releases.”

Since their release, the plans have been integrated into OMB Watch’s Right-to-Know Network Web site, which compiles government records in a searchable database so that users “can identify specific factories and their environmental effects; find permits under environmental statutes; and identify civil cases filed.”

These plans are the same ones used by the Congressional Research Service to create a report — issued Wednesday — studying which states have the most chemical facilities situated close to large population centers. Texas, Illinois, California and Ohio topped the list.

(OMB Watch v. EPA; Attorney: David Sobel, Washington, D.C.)RL

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