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WASHINGTON, July 9, 2019 — A new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule gives Trump administration appointees dangerous and unlawful new power to curb the public release of crucial environmental records, nonprofit conservation and transparency organizations warned today.
In today’s letter to the EPA, the Environmental Integrity Project, Center for Biological Diversity and more than a dozen other public-interest groups say the agency’s new rule governing responses to Freedom of Information Act requests “significantly increases the potential for abuse of the FOIA process.” The new rule, the letter notes, will impair the public’s right and ability to learn about important agency actions.
“The EPA’s radical new public records rule will make it much harder for people to understand the Trump administration’s harmful environmental policies,” said Meg Townsend, the Center’s Open Government attorney. “These changes, made without an opportunity for public comment, are aimed at hiding policies that pollute our air and water and harm endangered wildlife.”
EPA’s new rule explicitly authorizes EPA officials appointed by the president — including (but not limited to) the administrator, deputy administrators, assistant administrators, and any of “those individuals’ delegates” — to make FOIA determinations. This is an about-face from EPA’s prior statements that reviewers are not permitted to issue or alter FOIA determinations made by career staff, and that only “FOIA staff, program staff, and program managers will . . . determine whether information should be released or withheld under FOIA’s exemptions.”
The EPA issued its new rule on June 26, 2019 without providing any opportunity for public feedback, as is typically required under federal law. The changes come after public records revealed scandalous behavior by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who left the agency after months of controversy and investigations into his misuse of public money and EPA personnel and unethical relationships with lobbyists and polluting industries.
Today’s letter addresses specific issues with EPA’s new FOIA rule, including the agency’s authorization of political appointees to issue FOIA determinations and of the ability to withhold agency records based on their “responsiveness,” which contradicts both FOIA and legal precedent. The groups also highlight the issues with the lack of public notice and comment as required by the APA.