A Thank You To FOIA Officers: Purveyors Of Sunshine

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Originally published on blog of Union of Concerned Scientists.

This sunshine week I would like to express my appreciation for all of the work that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officers at federal agencies have done and continue to do to ensure public access to government communications, records, and documents. With FOIA, Congress codified into law that people in our nation have the right to know how public officials allocate resources, weigh competing interests, and handle decisions on everything from chemical safety to COVID-19 emergency planning — because for taxpaying citizens, government business is their business, too. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) system is one of the greatest tools we have in creating a more transparent government and holding our government officials accountable.

It is by no means perfect, however, and that was true long before the Trump administration. FOIA offices have traditionally faced budget cuts and understaffing. Under the Trump administration, they have also faced a steep increase in the number of requests, lawsuits, and policy proposals threatening to undermine their independence. Officers are public-facing and are thus the ones who bear the brunt of the collective frustration record-seekers have with extended timelines, narrowed requests, and redacted documents. We know you’re working under nearly impossible circumstances to do the right thing. You have spent your time working with members of the public, members of the press, and organizations like ours in order to get much-needed documents out to the public.

Thank you for your commitment to this incredibly important cause. There’s so much that wouldn’t have surfaced without your offices working with the public to access information. Here are some examples of vital information made public through document requests over the past few years:

FOIA showed how NOAA’s leaders managed a massive scientific integrity violation

Documents obtained through FOIA by Buzzfeed in 2019 revealed who stepped up and who didn’t during the #sharpiegate scandal at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The emails verified reporting of how things played out at the agency when its leaders betrayed their own scientists after the President doubled down on his inaccurate Dorian forecast and doctored a weather map. But the emails also shed light on how the acting administrator of NOAA, Neil Jacobs, failed to take a strong stand to defend the meteorologists who were providing accurate and timely information to the public.

FOIA revealed how DOI let offshore oil companies off the hook

Politico obtained data under FOIA in 2019 showing that, in a two-year period, the Department of Interior’s (DOI) Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) had given offshore oil drillers 1,679 waivers to regulations that tested the safety of equipment. More than a third of the waivers were for engineering testing procedures for blowout preventors, the device that failed to seal off BP’s well when it erupted in 2010 and killed 11 workers during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This data revealed exactly how DOI is catering to the whims of industry rather than looking out for environmental health or worker safety.

FOIA documents illustrated how the White House meddled with science on TCE

FOIA documents obtained by Reveal News showed that the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget altered scientific findings of an EPA report pointing to human health effects of the chemical, trichloroethylene (TCE). In late 2019, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrapped up a rigorous, three-year evaluation of TCE, a chemical used by companies and consumers to, among other things, degrease metal and remove stains. These scientists concluded that TCE was unsafe because, even at low levels, it can deform the hearts of fetuses – but when the draft reached the White House for review, political officials made direct edits that downplayed this finding. The altered evaluation, published in February, dismisses years of scientific consensus on TCE’s link to heart defects and sets the stage for continued use of a dangerous chemical.

UCS has also received documents from agencies that have helped us understand how certain decisions were made. For example:

FOIA showed the political motivations behind a so-called “transparency” rule

In 2018, documents obtained from our FOIA request related to the EPA’s “strengthening transparency and regulatory science” rule found that the individuals crafting the rule were political appointees, not scientists. This information was incredibly useful in determining the motivation behind the rule and understanding how it was so fundamentally flawed. This showed the unvarnished political motivations to the public before EPA released its talking points and proposed language, helping to mobilize the scientific community and generate public attention to a rule that otherwise would have arrived with little fanfare.

FOIA helped get a key scientific study on PFAS released

In 2018, we received documents related to EPA’s key political appointees at ORD that found that that the agency was thinking about delaying the release of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC’s) Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) study on PFAS because its findings would have become a “public relations nightmare.” We were able to expose this interference and garner public attention to it. As a result of the public outrage, the CDC released the toxicological profile of PFAS, which found that the chemicals were more hazardous than previously acknowledged by federal agencies. With this information, we released a report and map that showed how much more dangerous contamination at military sites could be based on levels far higher than EPA’s health advisory and ATSDR’s safe level. This added a much-needed scientific review to the evidence base that communities can use as local, state, and federal policies are developed to reduce exposure to PFAS.

FOIA caught inconsistencies in EPA statements on formaldehyde

In 2019, the EPA suspended the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) formaldehyde risk assessment, which had been in the works for years. In his responses to senators’ questions about the assessment earlier this year, EPA Administrator Wheeler claimed that “Formaldehyde was not identified as a top priority.” Political appointees at the agency gave the same answer when asked by the GAO, in a recent report. But, in documents obtained through FOIA request, the Union of Concerned Scientists found evidence that EPA staff was not only interested in the formaldehyde risk assessment, but as of 2017 the air office had a “strong interest in the review and are anxious to see it completed” and told EPA’s acting science advisor, Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, that “we have consistently identified formaldehyde as a priority.” Thus, the glaring omission of formaldehyde among the EPA’s list of prioritized chemicals issued in April 2019 appeared to be more a political decision than a scientific one. Upon gaining this knowledge, we filed a scientific integrity complaint along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, and Environmental Protection Network.

Transparency fuels a healthy and secure democracy

We have the right to know how government officials are making decisions so that we can be sure that they are serving the public good. FOIA officers operationalize that concept every single day. All administrations contend with transparency to some degree, but the Trump administration has been particularly secretive and, at times, blatantly opposed to the free flow of information. This has become pronounced as our country faces a pandemic for which we need clear and frequent science-based recommendations coming from our government agencies to know how we can keep our families, neighbors, healthcare workers, and fellow Americans safe from COVID-19. I trust that agency FOIA offices will be working tirelessly, as always, to provide us with the information we need about how decisions on the US government handling of COVID-19 were made, in addition to making progress on all of the other public information requests that will continue to be filed day in and day out. Thank you for your commitment to sunshine and empowering the public with knowledge and truth to stamp out secrecy, disinformation, and corruption.

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