EPA faces record number of transparency lawsuits

EPA faces record number of transparency lawsuits
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A record number of anti-secrecy lawsuits were filed in 2017 against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Fewer than half of school districts test for lead | Dems slam proposed changes to Endangered Species Act | FEMA avoids climate change when discussing plan for future storms Greens sue EPA over ‘super-polluting’ truck rule Don’t worry (too much) about Kavanaugh changing the Supreme Court MOREPolitico reported Monday.

Forty-six open records lawsuits were filed against the EPA in 2017, according to data from the FOIA Project at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, with a total of 55 open records lawsuits filed against the agency since President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE took office.

The next busiest year on record was 2015, when 22 lawsuits were filed after the Obama EPA finalized major rules on wetlands protection and power plant emissions. By comparison, former President George W. Bush's EPA faced only 57 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits during his entire eight-year presidency.

Lawsuits are typically brought against agencies to force the release of data from FOIA requests, and are usually final recourse for requesters after agencies fail to release public information in a timely manner as mandated by law.

The EPA blames the FOIA backlog on requests left over from the the Obama administration, saying that, as of Monday, 60 percent of the 650 cases left over from the previous administration have been closed.
 
The agency also blames the slowdown on the increased number of requests, as well as their complexity.
 
"EPA has and continues to receive more FOIAs than it has in previous years.  FOIA requests and responses have been more complex, requiring additional time and effort; and, some require additional consultation with multiple offices and federal agencies.  Recognizing the need to address the backlog, EPA’s Strategic Plan Transformation Strategy includes: reducing the backlog and meeting statutory deadlines for responding to FOIA requests and appeals.  This is the first time the Agency has committed to eliminating the FOIA backlog in such a transparent and accountable way," EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in a statement.

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 Since Trump took office, there has been an uptick in the number of FOIA requests even as they take markedly longer for the EPA to fulfill.

Between Jan. 20, 2017, and the end of last year, 11,431 FOIA requests were filed to the EPA — an increase of about 17 percent compared to the same time period in Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump has the right foreign policy strategy — he just needs to stop talking The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump faces bipartisan criticism over Putin presser, blames media for coverage Wall Street Journal editorial board rips Trump on Helsinki: It was a 'national embarrassment' MORE’s last year in office, a Project on Government Oversight report released Sunday found. 

The group found that a number of the requests were related to email exchanges between Pruitt, his staff, and potential appointees. Other requesters asked for Pruitt's daily schedule, which he has opted to keep private.

A number of environmental groups and watchdogs have contributed to the lawsuits filed against the EPA. Groups including Earth Justice, the Sierra Club, Cause of Action Institute and Partnerships in Enhanced Engagement in Research have all brought complains against the agency for failing to release public data.

“The FOIA process isn’t optional,” Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: Fewer than half of school districts test for lead | Dems slam proposed changes to Endangered Species Act | FEMA avoids climate change when discussing plan for future storms Dems slam proposed changes to Endangered Species Act Full interview: Democratic candidate Kerri Evelyn Harris discusses her Senate campaign in Delaware MORE (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in an emailed statement to Politico. “The American people are entitled to know what government officials, including Mr. Pruitt, are doing with their time and taxpayer money. Yet, from the agency’s refusal to document major environmental policy decisions, to the fictitious ‘blanket waiver’ that it tried to use to justify Mr. Pruitt’s travel expenses, this EPA is evasive when it should be working to be transparent.”