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Katrina only latest example of feds withholding environmental data

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JENKINTOWN, PA. -- It’s been more than a week since The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans turned in desperation to…

JENKINTOWN, PA. — It’s been more than a week since The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans turned in desperation to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to answer a basic question: Where are dangerous chemicals leaking as a result of Hurricane Katrina?

The paper’s lead hurricane reporter, Mark Schleifstein, had been asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that question for days – without an answer. So he filed a request under FOIA. Even though the federal statute provides for “expedited review” when a situation “could reasonably be expected to pose an imminent threat to the life or physical safety” of the public, he still has not received a response.

The request by Schleifstein, a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ board of directors, was followed by similar queries from other reporters.

A study of SEJ members’ experiences with FOIA released today suggests the journalists face a long, frustrating wait – and still may not get the information they’re seeking.

Government compliance with FOIA appears to be deteriorating in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to the SEJ report being released today, “A Flawed Tool – Environmental Reporters’ Experiences with the Freedom of Information Act.”

Volunteers with SEJ’s First Amendment Task Force interviewed 55 SEJ members, finding that excessive delays in releasing information are common – with some FOIA requests taking more than a year to fulfill.

Even when documents are turned over, agencies frequently black out huge amounts of information.

In a new twist, agencies have also started refusing in some cases to process a reporter’s request until they ponder whether the journalist is entitled to a waiver of search fees – even though such waivers are mandated by the federal statute.

Perhaps even worse, agencies have started requiring journalists to use the cumbersome, time-consuming FOIA process to obtain information once freely disclosed.

Partially because of the problems highlighted, more than half the SEJ members interviewed said they don’t use FOIA. The study team targeted investigative reporters in SEJ’s ranks. Presumably, FOIA use is even less prevalent among SEJ members generally.

“This report clearly shows that Congress needs to take action to make sure agencies are complying with the Freedom of Information Act, and should set up a system to punish those that aren’t,” said SEJ President Perry Beeman, who covers environment for The Des Moines Register. “Freedom of information is a basic American right, one that cannot be watered down by the incompetence, arrogance or indifference of bureaucrats.”

SEJ urges other journalism groups to undertake similar efforts to document problems with FOIA use.

SEJ members experiencing problems using FOIA should contact the SEJ First Amendment Task Force. (See http://www.sej.org/foia/index6.htm.)

EPA officials held a press conference last week to address pollution in New Orleans floodwaters, and late in the week released some water-quality testing results. But they still have not fulfilled the reporters’ FOIA request to know where the chemical leaks have been reported.

EPA’s refusal to identify reported chemical leaks caused by Hurricane Katrina comes four years after the agency, in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, assured residents of Lower Manhattan that the air was safe. In subsequent reports, the public learned that the agency was not so sure about the air’s safety, and that asbestos had been discovered at unsafe levels in dust. A report by the agency’s inspector general found that the White House Council on Environmental Quality “convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones” in its communications with the public.

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SEJ is the world’s oldest and largest organization of individual working journalists covering environmental affairs. Founded in 1990 and based in Jenkintown, Pa., its membership is composed of more than 1,450 journalists, educators and students dedicated to improving the quality, accuracy and visibility of environmental reporting.

The group’s membership guidelines exclude any person paid to lobby or do public relations on any side of environmental issues.

SEJ’s report is at http://www.sej.org/foia/SEJ_FOIA_Report2005.pdf. Links to the group’s letter to EPA and an op-ed by Beeman are at http://www.sej.org/foia/index5.htm.