Making the Freedom of Information Act sexy

How one small law has a big impact on the environmental movement

Josh Chetwynd
Jul 29, 2019 · 4 min read
(Credit: Roman Kraft on Unsplash)

When you’re trying to solve big problems, it’s sometimes easy to forget the smaller actions required to get you there. But when it comes to the environment, we must all remember, as Kitty Kallen said in her 1954 no. 1 hit song, “Little Things Mean A Lot.”

One seemingly diminutive tool that falls in this category is the thoroughly unsexy sounding Freedom of Information Act, commonly known as FOIA. It may seem like a forgettable regulation (laws best known by their acronym often are). But FOIA is a key mechanism in the fight to speak truth to power on a vast array of important environmental issues.

Enacted in 1966, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of Rep. John Moss from California — who the New York Times once described as “dull, grave, quiet, humorless, hard-working and plodding” — the Freedom of Information Act was created to make sure regular Americans could get access to reams of otherwise hidden-away government documents.

Basically, it requires federal agencies to hand over a broad array of records to any citizen who asks. Of course, there are a handful of exceptions, including classified information, trade secrets and private personal information. But, for the most part, the law’s intent is to assure transparency from national authorities. (States also have a variety of their own freedom of information laws.)

Historically, this device for digging into the government’s bureaucratic inner workings has been very valuable for the environment movement. For example, in 1987, a FOIA request to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uncovered proof that highly toxic dioxin was showing up in such paper products as disposable diapers to paper towels. As the Columbia Journalism Review summed up in 2017, “The Freedom of Information Act has been an unparalleled legal spotlight for exposing the inner workings of the federal government.”

The act continues to play a vital role today. Information culled from FOIA requests helped uncover the misuse of government resources by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who would ultimately resign from his post. FOIA also shed light on former EPA air chief Bill Wehrum’s involvement with a “fringe climate denier event,” according to the online publication HuffPost.

More and more environmentalists are recognizing and utilizing this tool. Recent data shows that among all federal agencies, the EPA is experiencing one of the highest increases in FOIA lawsuits. In other words, more people are pushing for information on all matters green than at any time in the recent past.

This probably shouldn’t be surprising. After all, with danger from the climate crisis increasing on a daily basis, more than ever, Americans want to know what the government knows — and what it is doing behind closed doors. Considering how much knowledge and power the government possesses, this is a smart move. Moreover, in a day and age when we grapple with “alternative facts,” hard documentation is essential for the environmental movement to bring light to matters that require attention.

Of course, just when we need that information most, the keepers of federal documents on green issues appear to be pushing back the hardest. Consider the U.S. Army’s response in March to a request for information on water contamination on 154 Army installations from the chemicals perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (known as PFAS for short).

The military put an astronomical $290,400 price tag on fulfilling that request. Now, FOIA does allow federal entities to ask for reasonable fees when collecting and sending documents, but the Army ultimately recognized it had gone a bridge too far with their exorbitant number. Less than a week after the story broke, the Army agreed to waive the cost.

The EPA has recently looked at ways to limit its legal obligations in providing transparency via the Freedom of Information Act. Earlier this summer, the EPA instituted new internal FOIA regulations that the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) insists “will impede the public’s access to environmental information and its right to know how tax dollars are spent.” These EPA changes were so troubling that a bipartisan group of U.S. senators are now working on legislation to counteract them.

Whether you’re an environmental activist or not, any effort to curtail FOIA’s power should bother you too. Existential threats like global warming require us all to be fully aware and educated on important subjects and that’s hard to do when there are efforts to cut the flow of information.

Those on the front lines should always use best practices when drafting a FOIA request. Everyone else should speak out on this topic.

To that end, remember Rep. Moss, the man who fought for the creation of the Freedom of Information Act. Back in 1956, he spoke the following words, which are as true today as they were when he uttered them. “The present trend toward Government secrecy could end in a dictatorship,” he said back then. “The more information there is made available, the greater will be the nation’s security.”

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