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A Watchdog Group Highlights the EPA's Delayed FOIA Responses

A report by Project on Government Oversight claims that the EPA's Office of the Administrator has significantly delayed the department's processing of Freedom of Information Act requests.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has announced what he's calling a transparency rule.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Over the past year, the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of the Administrator has significantly delayed the department's processing of Freedom of Information Act requests, according to an ongoing analysis by Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan non-profit that tracks corruption in the federal government.

The initial findings of the analysis show that the office within the EPA has only closed fewer than 17 percent of FOIA requests. The fallback in FOIA response has prompted an unprecedented spike in FOIA lawsuits filed against the Scott Pruitt-led EPA by open government groups, environmentalists, and even conservative organizations, Politico reports.

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) report claims these numbers exhibit a concerning emerging pattern in transparency for the office. The "analysis is ongoing, but the statistical patterns we've already begun to see are so concerning that we wanted to make policymakers, journalists, and the public aware," the POGO report reads. "The slow processing of FOIA requests by the Administrator's Office hampers the public's right to gain access to public records in a timely manner and to learn about the work of our government."

The POGO data shows that the Office of the Administrator has yet to start processing 94 percent of filed FOIA requests. According to the report, 928 of the opened FOIA requests have not yet reached the processing phase; the office is currently processing only 57 requests. The POGO analysis is ongoing, and will continue to look at collected data and anecdotes regarding FOIA requests submitted to the office.

"We see that it's coming as an alarming trend and, furthermore, that it's at an alarming rate," says Andrew Bergman, a POGO adviser. "We're relying on anecdotes from civil society organizations to understand the degree to which there are delays and to provide leads on how those delays may relate to the political sensitivity of those requests."

In the last year, the Office of the Administrator received more FOIA requests than the past years. From October of 2012 through December of 2016, the office received an average of 165 FOIA requests, compared with the average 9,702 requests of the EPA overall. However, during a significantly shorter period, from January through December of 2017, the Office of the Administrator received over 1,100 FOIA requests—over a thousand more requests in under a quarter number of days. Additionally, the closure of these cases by the EPA does not mean that the EPA provided responsive documents, Bergman says. He attributes some of the increase in FOIA requests to the considerable reduction of the office's transparency.

"The FOIA process isn't optional," Senator Tom Carper (D-Delaware) told Politico in an email. "The American people are entitled to know what government officials, including Mr. Pruitt, are doing with their time and taxpayer money. Yet, from the agency's refusal to document major environmental policy decisions, to the fictitious 'blanket waiver' that it tried to use to justify Mr. Pruitt's travel expenses, this EPA is evasive when it should be working to be transparent."