[env-trinity] FOIA fight draws huge crowd

Tom Stokely tstokely at att.net
Wed Jan 30 08:11:01 PST 2019



FOIA fight draws huge crowd

Michael Doyle, E&E News reporter
Published: Tuesday, January 29, 2019
Interior Department headquarters in Washington. Interior

Turns out, tens of thousands of people care about the Interior Department's plan to constrict the Freedom of Information Act.

Furloughed Interior workers returned this week to find more than 46,000 public comments responding to the department's controversial FOIA proposals first floated in late December. The comments were overwhelmingly negative. The comment period is set to expire at midnight tonight, and more responses are likely to flood in at the last minute.

"I am very concerned ... because these revisions will negatively impact my ability to access government information," an individual identified as Terry McClellan declared, adding that "Interior's proposed rule undermines ... transparency by imposing excessive burdens on the public."

Numerous comments deployed identical language, including some minor grammatical errors, in a sign of mobilized group protest. More detailed complaints, though, have also been posted, including a 10-page critique by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 39 media organizations.

"Increased public interest in the activities of the Department ... should be welcomed and, in any event, is not license for the Department to impose unlawful restrictions and unnecessary, unwarranted burdens on FOIA requesters," the news media organizations state.

Under Interior's new FOIA proposals, the department declares it "will not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search or requires the bureau to locate, review, redact or arrange for inspection of a vast quantity of material" (Greenwire, Jan. 25).

In addition, the changes would allow Interior to "impose a monthly limit for processing records ... in order to treat FOIA requests equitably by responding to a greater number of FOIA requests each month."

The new proposal would also allow Interior to demand to know how FOIA requesters who identify themselves as educators, students or journalists intend to use information that is provided to them, with higher standards applied.

"Exponential increases in requests and litigation have made updates to these regulations a priority," Interior stated.

Between fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2018, incoming FOIA requests to Interior increased 30 percent, from 6,428 to over 8,350. Some bureaus and offices have been "hit especially hard," the department stated, with the Office of the Secretary's FOIA office experiencing a 210 percent increase since 2016.

In fiscal 2010, Interior reported receiving 6,127 FOIA requests. It had 1,200 pending requests at the end of that year. Since then, the backlog has grown. At the end of fiscal 2017, the department reported having 2,318 pending requests.

The 2017 requests ranged from then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's noncommercial travel records and the schedules for the department's top lawyer, Daniel Jorjani, to National Park Service correspondence with the Trump Organization hotels, among many other topics, the FOIA log shows.

The FOIA requests, and the grumbling, don't just come from environmentalists and reporters digging for dirt. The Wyoming Coalition of Local Governments, for instance, noted that local agencies "often" file FOIA requests for important project documents.

"It is not unusual, however, for Coalition requests to go unsatisfied for years," the Wyoming group recounted, adding that "by the time the information is provided, the utility of that information will be minimized or even mooted due to the delay."

Interior's first follow-up decision on the FOIA proposals will be whether to keep the public comment period open longer, as environmental groups and lawmakers have urged.

The Democratic chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona wrote acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt asking for public hearings and for a 120-day extension to the written comment period.
Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10 Email: mdoyle at eenews.net
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