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: EPA halts surprise inspections of power, chemical plants | Regulators decline to ban pesticide linked to brain damage | NY awards country's largest offshore wind energy contracts EPA allows continued use of pesticide linked with brain damage Overnight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade 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 TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade 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 ObamaHealth care moves to center stage in Democratic primary fight Meghan McCain shares video of father shutting down supporter who called Obama an 'Arab' after Trump rally Poll: Majority of Democratic voters happy with their choices among 2020 contenders 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 CarperFighting the opioid epidemic: Congress can't just pass laws, but must also push to enforce them Overnight Energy: Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area | Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules to put industry reps on boards | New rule to limit ability to appeal pollution permits Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules when appointing industry leaders to science boards 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.”