2006 Archives: SEJ Speaks on FOI Issues

November 29, 2006
SEJ urges NIEHS not to privatize environmental health magazine

SEJ wrote the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences today, asking him to abandon plans to downgrade and privatize its flagship, open-access journal, Environmental Health Perspectives. The magazine is renowned for publishing free online cutting-edge research on relevant and timely topics — in non-technical terms and in multiple languages.

Having completed a "Request for Proposals" for outsourcing, and with plans to cut the magazine's budget by some 85 percent (forcing a contractor to somehow make up the difference), NIEHS would effectually be destroying "an excellent magazine" and replacing it with "a different one of far less value to NIEHS and the U.S. public." 

September 14, 2006
SEJ joins call for limits on "sensitive" secrecy stamp by DHS

SEJ signed on to a joint letter with several journalism and open-government groups today in calling on Congress to limit the use of a new "sensitive security information" (SSI) stamp to keep nonclassified information secret.

Conferees from the House and Senate are currently trying to reconcile two different versions of the appropriations bill (HR 5441) for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The House version of the bill contains provisions aimed at limiting the overuse of the SSI designation.

September 6, 2006
SEJ opposes "Official Secrets Act" legislation

SEJ sent a letter today to the Senate Judiciary Committee to express opposition to a proposed bill (S 3774) that would likely silence most reporters' confidential sources within government by broadly criminalizing unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

The U.S. EPA is one of the agencies that can pick and choose the information it does not want made public, and the bill's imposing 3-year jail sentence would ensure most government employees stayed quiet.

Leaking classified information is already illegal when prosecutors can show harm to national security. The new legislation would abandon that test. 

August 8, 2006
SEJ opposes EPA library closures and cuts

The Society of Environmental Journalists wrote today to urge the full Senate to modify President Bush's proposed budget to reinstate funding that would maintain and improve the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's libraries, saying "Reducing funding for EPA's cultivated libraries is a step that closes the intellectual commons in this country." Library closures would make it hard not only for reporters to do their jobs, but also for EPA scientists and attorneys.

In the letter, SEJ President Perry Beeman also pointed out that according to the EPA's own November 2005 cost-benefit analysis, cutting the agency's library budget is not cost effective. In addition, no provisions have apparently been made for the costs of the promised conversion, availability and long-term electronic access to all of the information now provided by the libraries — 80,000 documents, of which 67,000 are currently paper-only. Futhermore, no mention has been made of safeguards to ensure the electronic form matches the original.

July 20, 2006
SEJ asks DOI to clarify photo fee/permit policy on public lands

SEJ asked Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to clarify its policy for requiring permits and fees for photography in National Parks and other public lands.

At issue is whether the permit-and-fee policy, which Interior claims is legally required, will interfere with newsgathering or similar work that informs the public about resources and happenings on the millions of acres of publicly owned land managed by the Interior Department.

Park Service officials' assurances that the new interim policy adopted this year will not impede journalists' work has left many questions unresolved. SEJ's concern is that vaguely drawn language or inappropriately aggressive enforcement could keep many of its members from doing their jobs — jobs they have a perfect legal right to do on public land. 

June 29, 2006
SEJ urges Corps to release Okeechobee flood maps

SEJ urged the Army Corps of Engineers to release inundation maps showing areas that would be flooded in the event of a sudden failure of the Herbert Hoover Dike which holds back Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida.

In the June 29th letter to Florida Corps officials, SEJ stated that release of the maps was required under the Freedom of Information Act, and that it is in the public interest to let people know when they are in such danger. A Lake Okeechobee levee has failed in the past — during a 1928 hurricane, killing over 2,500 people.

The move follows reports this month that the Corps there refused to give Florida news media copies of the maps, citing homeland security concerns.

May 22, 2006
SEJ opposes wastewater "security" bill's secrecy provisions

SEJ signed on to a letter opposing secrecy language in a bill, S 2781, approved May 23, 2006, by the Senate Environment Committee.

The bill — so vague it could put a reporter in jail for writing about almost any aspect of sewage — creates a new statutory exemption to the Freedom of Information Act for a broad swath of information related to sewage system performance, policy, and management. But it goes well beyond that by making it a criminal offense to disclose such information if it is contained in a "vulnerability assessment."

S 2781 authorizes EPA's administrator to provide grants to sewage authorities to prepare "vulnerability assessments" and emergency response plans — yet forbids the EPA administrator from possessing a copy of one of the vulnerability assessments he is authorized to fund.

Signing the opposition letter along with SEJ were the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, California First Amendment Coalition, Capitolbeat, National Conference of Editorial Writers, National Freedom of Information Coalition, Radio-Television News Directors Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Society of Professional Journalists, and Washington Coalition for Open Government. 

May 16, 2006
SEJ supports amendment to block TRI changes

SEJ wrote key House members May 16 urging a vote on a measure to block EPA-proposed cutbacks to the Toxics Release Inventory.

EPA, at the urging of some industry groups, proposed in Sept. 2005 raising tenfold the thresholds above which companies must report the quantities of certain toxic chemicals they release to air, land, and water. The proposal would allow more companies to keep confidential the amounts of chemicals they release, transfer, or handle.

Other journalism groups joining SEJ in this position and signing on to SEJ's letter include the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, California First Amendment Coalition, and the Washington Coalition for Open Government.


January 13, 2006
SEJ opposes EPA's proposal to limit TRI toxics data collection

SEJ filed a statement Jan. 13, 2006, calling on EPA to abandon its proposal to cut back on how much data the agency collects and publishes on toxic emissions. SEJ's opposition to the Toxics Release Inventory "burden reduction" was endorsed by seven other national journalism organizations.

EPA had proposed in a Federal Register notice on Oct. 4, 2005, to ease thresholds for companies to qualify for using the short "Form A" when reporting their handling and release to the environment of toxic chemicals. Form A contains no numerical data.

In its comments to the rulemaking record, SEJ argued that the public had a right to know what toxics people were being exposed to. TRI, the comments noted, has been the basis for many important environmental news stories. SEJ also argued that the reporting burden on industry had been overstated, because many companies have to collect or report this data for other purposes. EPA has already reduced the reporting burden in numerous ways, SEJ asserted, and has no benchmark for measuring how much "burden reduction" is enough. SEJ also noted that EPA ignored legal requirements that agencies fully disclose what prompted their rulemakings and conduct cost-benefit analyses of their proposed actions.

Endorsing SEJ's comments in a separate filing were the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, National Freedom of Information Coalition, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Society of Professional Journalists. 


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