Monday, September 12, 2005

EPA Withholds Katrina Pollution Data

A press release from the Society of Environmental Journalists, reprinted in its entirety:

Katrina only latest example of feds withholding environmental data

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 First Amendment Task Force.

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 and answer that basic question: Where are dangerous chemicals leaking as a result of Hurricane Katrina?

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 [here](note: PDF file). Links to the group's letter to EPA and an op-ed by Beeman are [here].

This administration has done more to increase government secrecy than any in recent memory and specificly has gone out of its way to hinder Freedom of Information Act requests. One could wish that in a situation such as this, where many people are being exposed to a toxic soup we could at least learn what the potential dangers are. One could wish...


Anonymous jackd said...

They lied about the air around Ground Zero NYC in 2001. At the time I believed what the EPA said. Not this time. This time it's too frickin' obvious that the water is a health hazard. I don't think I'd believe anything the Feds say about it unless they release independent test results.

By the way, Charlie, I'm a neighbor of yours, down in Lilburn. Glad to have found your blog via a recent comment of yours at Pandagon.

8:02 PM  
Blogger pansauce said...

Pleased to meet you.

In case you're interested, there're gang of us who hang out on Pandagon and live near Atlanta, and occasionally we get together to do stuff.

If you're interested in joining us some time, sign up for our YahooGroup e-mail list.

8:43 PM  

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