Flint Hearing Raises Freedom of Information Concerns

February 3, 2016

A citizen watchdog told a House committee February 3, 2016 that he is still waiting for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to respond to some of his Freedom-of-Information-Act (FOIA) requests. One request from nine years ago remains unfulfilled.

Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech, was one of those who brought the Flint, Michigan, drinking water failure to light — partly through FOIA requests that were fulfilled. Edwards told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he was still waiting for requested records.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) asked Joel Beauvais, EPA's acting deputy assistant administrator for Water whether he would commit the agency to fulfilling Edwards' FOIA requests. Beauvais did not specifically commit the agency to doing so.

That came after Beauvais had told the panel in his opening statement that "We are sharing information with the public in a transparent and timely way".

EPA's openness has been a major issue throughout the crisis of contaminated drinking water in Flint, which has caused lead poisoning of some children. One aspect of the openness issue is the ability of agency employees to speak with journalists.

One hero of the Flint story was EPA staffer Miguel Del Toral, who wrote a memo back on June 24, 2015, saying that some Flint water had too much lead (as well as other contaminants). But, like almost all other EPA employees, Del Toral was not allowed to tell the media.

"Mr. Del Toral was told to forward all media requests," Leeanne Walters told the House committee February 3 — meaning he was ordered by EPA superiors to refer any media requests for information to the press office in Region 5.

Leeanne Walters is a Flint mom who called EPA because she was worried about the effects of Flint water on her child. She ended up talking to Del Toral as a result. It was Walters who eventually leaked Del Toral's June 24 memo.

EPA's press policies are a mystery and a paradox. Most environmental reporters who call EPA staff for interviews or questions are told staff are not allowed to talk to news media without press office approval. Yet EPA and its press office maintain that no such policy exists. A WatchDog FOIA request for any written EPA policy yielded essentially nothing. Yet most EPA employees behave as if they are afraid of losing their jobs if they talk to reporters without permission.

Documents and testimony suggest strongly that EPA — at least from the regional level — tried hard to keep Del Toral quiet and to suppress his memo.

Susan Hedman, then Region 5 administrator, wrote the then-mayor of Flint, Dayne Walling, in late June 2015, that Del Toral's memo "should not have been released outside the agency".

Hedman defended EPA's silence on the poisoned water in a January 12, 2016, interview with the Detroit News' Jim Lynch. But by then, the story was out. Hedman resigned just over a week later.

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