Green groups sue EPA over 'sweeping overhaul' of public records policy

Green groups sue EPA over 'sweeping overhaul' of public records policy
© Stefani Reynolds

Two separate environmental lawsuits were filed Wednesday challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) changes to its public records policy.

The two suits, filed separately by four environmental groups in the Federal District Court of Northern California and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, each argue that the EPA’s newly implemented Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rule, submitted at the end of June without a public comment period, was intended to prevent the public from receiving requested public information and to hide information from requesters.

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The suit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and Environmental Integrity Project in the Washington court alleges that the EPA’s final FOIA rule was “a sweeping overhaul of the agency’s rules governing its process for responding to records requests.” 

Specifically, it challenges provisions included in the new EPA rule, saying that it gives the agency the authority to deny FOIA requests on the basis of a records’ “responsiveness,” and therefore delays record releases. The suit also challenges the fact that the final rule was submitted to the federal register without a public comment period.

“These secretly adopted FOIA directives institutionalize procedures and practices that serve to delay and often frustrate public access to public records by allowing EPA political appointees to oversee what information is made available to the public, and what information never sees the light of day,” the suit reads.

The second suit launched by two California based environmental groups, Ecological Rights Foundation and Our Children's Earth Foundation, argues that the EPA’s FOIA policies “violate the letter and spirit of FOIA and represent the latest example of EPA’s ongoing attack on government transparency and accountability.” It also argues that the rule was “illegal procedurally” because it failed to include public feedback under a comment period.

Additionally, the suit takes issue with the agency’s “awareness review” process, which allows political appointees the chance to review the requested documents pertaining to them before release, and in some instances withhold documents.

“EPA’s decision to allow the Administrator to make initial determinations on FOIA requests and to bar requesters from appealing those determinations is arbitrary, capricious, and otherwise not in accordance with law,” the suit reads.

Both lawsuits follow a long line of challenges to the EPA’s FOIA policy, both by environmental groups and lawmakers. 

On Tuesday, a group of bipartisan senators introduced a FOIA reform bill designed to mitigate some of the new policies included in EPA’s FOIA rule. 

On Wednesday, the Interior Department Inspector General said it is investigating Interior’s similar FOIA policy that allows political appointees to review and potentially withhold public documents from being released.