2005 Archives: SEJ Speaks on FOI Issues

November 15, 2005
SEJ joins call for post-Katrina FEMA contract disclosure

SEJ joined a number of open-government groups in urging President Bush to post online full copies of all contracts and other paperwork authorizing spending for relief and recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina.

Various officials and media have already raised concerns about waste and favoritism in award of some $62.3 billion already authorized by Congress for post-Katrina relief. The groups urged President Bush to make the process transparent so that taxpayers, states, and news media can oversee the effectiveness of hurricane response.

The letter was organized by OMB Watch, an open-government group, and the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government (CJOG), a media-access umbrella group. Some 47 groups, including many media groups and newspapers, had signed it as of Nov. 15, 2005. 

November 3, 2005
SEJ opposes secrecy mandate in new biodefense bill

The Society of Environmental Journalists this month added its voice to those of other journalism groups opposing the granting of supersecret status to a newly proposed biodefense agency — a blanket of secrecy that would extend to many of the nation's drug and chemical companies.

Acting through its Freedom of Information Task Force, SEJ signed onto a letter of opposition sent to Senate sponsors of the measure by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government (CJOG). The letter opposes unprecedented secrecy provisions in the bill (S 1873) that would apply to the new Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency ("BARDA") it would create. Under the bill, BARDA would be entirely exempt from both the Freedom of Information Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the nation's main open records and meetings laws. 

November 2, 2005
SEJ supports bill giving teeth to Ohio FOI law

SEJ voiced its support for a bill currently before the Ohio legislature that strengthens that state's freedom of information law and offers a model to other states.

The bill (HB 9), which grew out of an AP-sponsored "audit" of Ohio agencies' responsiveness to public records requests, adds fines for agencies that fail to respond to FOI requests in a timely way — $250 a day up to a maximum of $5,000 for agencies who violate timely-response provisions, and more for agencies found purposefully delaying response. 

October 12, 2005
SEJ joins call for more openness at US Supreme Court

SEJ, along with other journalism groups, joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in urging newly installed Chief Justice John Roberts to speed and broaden press and public access to proceedings of the US Supreme Court.

Transcripts of oral arguments before the Court normally are not available to the press or public until seven to ten days later while audiotapes of oral arguments aren't usually available until the following fall. 

September 15, 2005
SEJ and EPA/Katrina: The search for public information — a timeline

It's hard telling why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released information about Hurricane Katrina's environmental aftermath when it did. EPA hasn't explained itself fully. However, this timeline shows the slow pace and juxtaposes appeals for information from various reporters and the Society of Environmental Journalists with EPA's information releases. 

August 29: Katrina hits land.

September 4: New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Mark Schleifstein files a FOIA request seeking release reports filed to the National Response Center, in addition to correspondence about those reports, and other information. Schleifstein's repeated attempts to talk to EPA about that material up to this point had been fruitless. Other reporters file duplicate or near-duplicate FOIA requests.

September 6: SEJ President Perry Beeman and Ken Ward, co-chair of SEJ's Freedom of Information Task Force, write to EPA's FOIA officer, encouraging the agency to act quickly on the information requests and to expedite its processing of the FOIA requests.

September 7: A day after SEJ filed its letter with the agency, EPA calls its first press conference to release sampling results, more than a week after the hurricane hit. The agency reports on limited sampling in residential areas that found high bacterial and lead levels in New Orleans, and suggests that people stay out of the water. EPA releases no National Response Center documents and has no word on its own air sampling, or detailed results of its chemical sampling of water.

Many reporters get the advisory about the press conference by email after the session was over.

September 8: Beeman releases an op-ed piece, which is published in newspapers and on websites across the U.S. and in other countries. The op-ed details reporters' frustrations with EPA's slow response to reporters' requests and the lack of public information on the full extent of Katrina's environmental aftermath. Beeman points out the information was collected with the public's money for the public and should be released. He wonders, in print, if EPA is busy re-reading Schleifstein's 2002 series, "Washing Away," which predicted New Orleans would be leveled by a major hurricane.

September 9: EPA loads its first Katrina water-sample results on its website.

September 11: EPA loads its first chemical sample results on its website.

Monday, September 12: SEJ releases a report detailing a survey of members and personal testimonies of reporters on widespread problems with the FOIA system, mentioning Katrina as just the latest case of problems getting information from federal agencies. Several SEJ members are interviewed by various media outlets.

Tuesday night, September 13: Beeman appears via telephone on CNN Daybreak with anchor Carol Costello, describing reporters' frustrations with EPA's failure to grant information requests. Beeman notes that EPA's release of week-old data two weeks after the hurricane hit did not answer many questions and suggested the agency didn't learn its information-access lessons when its tight-lipped approach was criticized in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

That night, Schleifstein, who by this time had appeared on a number of news programs detailing Katrina, learns from a regional EPA worker that some Louisiana release reports are available on National Response Center website. Still no response to his FOIA request, even to acknowledge its receipt.

Wednesday, September 14: In an EPA press conference, Administrator Stephen Johnson details results of samples taken a week before. Johnson also mentions that the EPA initially had been busy helping rescue hurricane victims, and had worked hard to spread information about what samples it took later, once they cleared quality control. Johnson displays a board showing the number of press advisories and releases, contending the agency has been open.

Later that day, Seth Borenstein of Knight Ridder talks to FOIA officer at EPA who says EPA will attempt to expedite consideration of SEJ members' FOIA requests about Katrina, and will provide the information on EPA's website. Federal law requires wide distribution when EPA had or expects to have multiple requests for the same information.

EPA loaded its first air-monitoring data on its website this day. 

September 12, 2005
New SEJ report: Katrina only latest example of feds withholding environmental data

Journalists are having an increasingly difficult time using the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to drag information out of the federal government to shed light on Superfund sites, chemical factories, mining accidents and a host of other topics important to citizens.

An SEJ report released today says the failure of the Environmental Protection Agency to divulge information about chemical releases in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is only the latest in a long line of problems journalists are encountering in using FOIA.

The report, "A Flawed Tool — Environmental Reporters' Experiences With the Freedom of Information Act," recommends actions by Congress, journalists and the public to better ensure that this democratizing law is carried out faithfully. 

September 8, 2005
SEJ op-ed: Americans need EPA answers now

SEJ distributed an op-ed piece, September 8, 2005, on U.S. EPA handling — or mishandling — of post-Katrina information requests from journalists, by SEJ president/Des Moines Register environment writer Perry Beeman.

The op-ed follows on the heels of SEJ's September 6, 2005, letter to EPA's National Freedom of Information Officer regarding unresponsiveness to requests for answers, and EPA's "news" conference of the following day, which offered nothing more substantive than sound bites.

In the piece, Beeman presses EPA for details. "Which bacteria and how much? Which gasoline and oil constituents and how much? Which carcinogens? Which pathogens? Americans need to know what specific threats exist and what the government is doing about them. They are paying for the raw data, and they deserve to see it. Now." 

September 6, 2005
SEJ encourages EPA to quickly respond to Katrina pollutant release requests

The Society of Environmental Journalists wrote to encourage the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to quickly respond to requests for more detailed information about chemical spills and other environmental releases resulting from Hurricane Katrina.

Mark Schleifstein, reporter at The Times-Picayune and an SEJ board member, filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Monday, September 5, 2005, for information about the environmental consequences of Katrina, after his efforts to obtain answers without a formal request were unsuccessful. Several other SEJ members have filed similar FOIA requests today.

The letter stated, "While the exact nature of the environmental damage done by Katrina may not be known for some time, it is clear that EPA is making assessments and equally clear that the agency should have some initial data that can and should be made public." 

August 1, 2005
SEJ urges Gonzales to rethink Ashcroft FOIA Memo

One of the Bush administration's actions that did most to restrict public access to government information, many press groups say, was the so-called "Ashcroft Memo." SEJ has joined a coalition of other journalism groups in urging Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to review and change his predecessor's restrictive policy.

In an Aug. 1, 2005, letter to Gonzales, the groups urged Gonzales to reverse the Ashcroft decree that whenever there was discretion, the government's presumption should be to withhold, rather than disclose, information under the Freedom of Information Act. 

April 27, 2005
SEJ joins protest of military base press restrictions

SEJ joined six other journalism groups April 27, 2005, in protesting recently tightened restrictions on journalists working on US military bases — a venue for many environmental stories.

The groups, led by Military Reporters & Editors (MRE), wrote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld urging him to rescind restrictions placed on reporters covering the trial of Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar (accused of killing fellow soldiers with a grenade) at Fort Bragg, N.C. Before being allowed to cover the trial, reporters have been required to sign agreements to some 14 different restrictions — ranging from not interviewing base personnel to being escorted to the bathroom.

Military bases and lands are the settings for many common environmental stories. Forthcoming DoD announcements of base closings and realignments will spark stories on toxic cleanups, land use decisions, energy facility siting, conservation of wetlands, and endangered species — to name only a few. Of roughly 670 million acres of US land owned by the federal government, about 3% are under control of the military. 

March 28, 2005
SEJ urges moderation on proposed NRC expansion of "Safeguards Information"

SEJ urged the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on March 28, 2005, to moderate its proposed expansion of the definition of information to be kept secret as "Safeguards Information" (SGI).

In formal comments submitted on a regulation proposed by NRC, SEJ said: "We are concerned ... that the proposed rule ... only fortifies a secrecy regime which in the end may have an effect the opposite of what is intended — diminishing true safety and security rather than enhancing it; hiding vulnerabilities rather than eliminating them; masking performance failures rather than correcting them; and weakening public oversight and accountability rather than strengthening them."

The NRC proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on Feb. 11, 2005. It would expand NRC's existing rule for the protection of SGI to cover additional licensees, information, and materials not currently specified in the regulations. 

February 18, 2005
SEJ objects to Arboretum photo fee rule

The Society of Environmental Journalists has objected to plans by the Department of Agriculture to change its permit requirements and fee schedule for photography inside the National Arboretum in Washington, DC.

In a Feb. 18 comment letter, SEJ's Freedom of Information Task Force said that the proposed rule goes beyond the scope of the Department's legal authority to charge photography fees. Under the law, the agency may not charge fees for photography that "takes place where members of the public are generally allowed."

In its proposed rule, the Department proposed to charge for all photography that is not "for personal use only." Task Force member Kathie Florsheim took the lead in working the issue for SEJ, and SEJ was joined in its comment by the National Press Photographers Association.

February 16, 2005
SEJ, other journalism groups back Cornyn-Leahy FOIA bill

SEJ has expressed its support for a set of Freedom of Information Act amendments newly introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT).

The bill addresses specific complaints from journalists — on matters including fee waivers, timeliness of agency response, outsourcing of agency record-keeping, mediated resolution of disputed FOIA requests, recovery of plaintiffs' legal costs, accurate reporting of agency FOIA performance, and staffing and funding of FOIA offices, among others. It does not directly address some other concerns raised by journalism groups — such as the burgeoning of new FOIA exemptions in the name of homeland security.

Introduced as a bill in the Senate on Feb. 16, 2005, the measure (S 394) would make some 17 changes to the existing FOIA statute.

A broad range of other journalism groups besides SEJ immediately expressed support for the bill, including the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, Associated Press Managing Editors, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Newspaper Association of America, National Newspaper Association, Radio-Television News Directors Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, National Conference of Editorial Writers, Association of Health Care Journalists, Committee of Concerned Journalists, Education Writers Association, Freedom of Information Center (University of Missouri), Information Trust, National Freedom of Information Coalition, and the National Press Club.

"Open government," Cornyn said in floor remarks Feb. 16, "is one of the most basic requirements of a healthy democracy. It allows taxpayers to see where their money is going; it permits the honest exchange of information that ensures government accountability; and it upholds the ideal that government never rules without the consent of the governed."

SEJ's support was expressed in a joint Feb. 16 letter with some of the above groups. You can read the complete text of the letter here. 

February 14, 2005
SEJ urges Justice Dept. not to bar disclosure with huge fees

SEJ has joined the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government and other journalism groups in urging the Department of Justice to waive the huge fee it wants to charge a nonprofit group for information about detention of post-9/11 immigrant detainees.

While the issue does not relate directly to the environment, it affects all journalists. It is a key challenge to what the J-groups consider a Justice Department policy of using huge and unjustified fees as a way to prevent public access to information that should legally be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.

In a Feb. 14, 2005, letter to the Justice Department, CJOG, SEJ, and other J-groups urged the agency to back away from its demands for payment of a $372,799 up-front search fee before it would start retrieving the information for the liberal-leaning People for the American Way Foundation, which focuses on civil rights and constitutional liberties.

FOIA statutory and case law clearly dictate waiver of search fees (of any amount) when disclosure of the information is in the "public interest." The so-called "public interest" fee waiver was once given almost automatically to news media — but the Justice Dept. and federal agencies have since 2001 been making media work harder to justify it in each case.