WatchDog TipSheet

Fresh Secret Reports from the Congressional Research Service

Here are some recent explainers of interest to environmental journalists from the CRS, which Congress does not allow to be released to the taxpaying public who paid for them. The WatchDog thanks those who leaked them and the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy for publishing them.

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Support Mounts for FOIA Upgrade Bill in Senate

Pressure to bring a bipartisan power-boost bill for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the Senate floor mounted June 26, 2014, when a coalition of some 50 groups urged action. The bill would narrow a broad exemption that has in some cases shielded from disclosure almost anything not published in official and final form.

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EPA Press Office Obfuscation Keeps Complaints Boiling

If you want to interview an EPA official about a drinking water pollution catastrophe or a controversy about air pollution from fracking, the press office may do its best to stop you. Examples abound. But, there are ways for journalists to push back. Read about them here.

SEJ Publication Types: 

What the Public Isn't Allowed To Know Could Kill You

The federal government has not only done very little to protect the public from the mass-casualty threats chemical facilities present to neighboring communities, they've focused efforts on keeping the public from knowing about those threats or the government's own failures to keep them safe. Now the U.S. EPA has signaled that it is about to revise a key rule governing chemical facility safety and security.

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National Bridge Inventory Rife with Environmental, Safety Stories

The National Bridge Inventory is a data tool that environmental and energy reporters can use to make their beat relevant to a wider audience. Compiled by the Federal Highway Administration, it can provide leads on stories like the use of federal highway funds, poor bridge maintenance, and even the pollution of water bodies with lead paint.

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Many States Hide Rail Hazmat Threats from Public at Companies' Behest

It's not like you can't figure these things out. Trains full of explosive crude oil, for example, may be obvious as a string of 100-odd identical black tankers rolls through populated areas. The number on the DOT-required diamond-shaped flammability placard on each car probably has the number 1257 on it. But it's not just crude oil that's an issue.

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Senate Kills Bill with Fees, Permits for Photogs in Parks

A sloppily written provision that could have opened the door wider for federal land managers to charge fees or require permits for news photography died in the Senate July 10, 2014, along with the "Bipartisan Sportsmen's Bill" to which it was attached. SEJ and other media groups had objected to the language. According to the AP, the bill "would have opened more federal lands to hunters and other sportsmen, increased funds for shooting ranges and blocked government curbs on bullets and fishing gear containing lead."

SEJ Publication Types: 

SEJ, 37 Journalism Groups Urge Obama to Stop PIO Spin at Fed Agencies

SEJ is hardly alone in complaints about EPA's press office gagging agency employees who might talk to reporters. In a July 8, 2014 letter, 38 journalism groups called on President Obama to stop the political spin of information at many federal agencies. Reminding Obama of his still-unkept promise to run the most transparent administration in history, the groups complained about widespread "politically driven suppression of news and information."

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More Tips for Getting Around Press Office Obstruction

SEJ members aren't the only ones who find federal agency press offices to be hard to get call-backs, on-record interviews, or simple information from. Many health writers have the same problem. In the latest issue of Harvard's Nieman Reports, Jenni Bergal paints a broad canvas of the problems many journalists have in getting from agencies key information that affects the public interest.

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Legislation Moving in Congress Could Strengthen FOIA

Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced a bill that would add a balancing test and sunset to the "deliberative process" exemption in the current FOIA law. That exemption shields from disclosure records documenting internal policy debates within agencies before final decisions are made. Prospects for the Senate bill are improved by the fact that Leahy chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and a related bill has already been passed by the House.

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