Sunshine Week 2014: Hard Fight for Open Government Far from Won

March 21, 2014

News media and good government groups confronted increasingly secretive federal, state, and local governments March 15-21, 2014 in efforts to win back the public's right to know.

Spin control and the security state may have taken large bites out of the First Amendment in recent years, but the pushback celebration known as Sunshine Week has never been more robust. Pushing for open government is a trend.

Nowhere is this more true than on the environment and energy beats. Secretiveness at US EPA and other agencies surged during the George W. Bush administration. But under President Obama, who pledged publicly to make his administration the most transparent ever, agency staff are virtual prisoners and the news is hidden behind an iron phalanx of PIO "minders."

The Society of Environmental Journalists, whose members have complained about this for years, fired off an op-ed taking EPA (the agency responsible for safe drinking water) to task for hiding from the press after a chemical spill shut off water in Charleston, WV, this January.

"If you screw up in government, just mark it top secret," complained Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at a pre-Sunshine Week hearing. Leahy's committee has worked to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act on a bipartisan basis — in the face of the executive branch's continuing campaign to weaken it, even under Obama.

Did EPA (in addition to West Virginia regulators) screw up in Charleston, or in its implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act? The EPA press office has yet to offer comment.