As the eyes and ears of the public, journalists stake their professional reputations on overcoming hurdles to access information held by government. Spend any amount of time with the true FOI warriors, and you’ll hear tales of woe, amazing accounts of official stonewalling and intimidation.
Far too often, we leave these tales on the cutting room floor, so to speak, and present the public with only the results of dogged reporting. This leaves out an important part of the story: how we got the records in the first place, and how difficult it would be for the public to enjoy the same right of access they theoretically enjoy under FOI laws.
In an era in which journalists face unprecedented hardships, we must take the time and effort to tell readers and viewers the rest of the story. We need to rekindle public outrage at government secrecy, and the best way to do that is to give journalism consumers a peek behind the curtain.
A recent five-part series by Macon (Ga.) Telegraph environment reporter Heather Duncan did just that, highlighting not only the existence of chemical hazards in her community, but also bringing much-needed attention to the fact that such information lies well hidden behind a thicket of obstruction and bureaucracy. By taking readers along for the ride, Duncan’s series stands as a perfect example of the kind of FOI-driven show-and-tell we need to produce in abundance.
The series started in October 2004, when Duncan sat out to document the state of chemical hazards in the Macon area. To do so, she needed to read the EPA’s Risk Management Plans from two counties in the newspaper’s coverage area. RMPs are required for factories and treatment plants that keep amounts of certain dangerous chemicals large enough to pose a potential risk to neighbors.
The RMPs are part of a wide pattern of disclosure mandated by Congress in the wake of the disastrous 1984 chemical leak in Bhopal, India, and have been widely credited with placing pressure on the chemical industry to reduce the amount and type of toxic chemicals in the marketplace. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the government has limited public access to RMP information.
With this in mind, Duncan made access to the data a major element of her story and addressed the difficulty of learning your risk if you live or work near one of these facilities.
“The point of the series was how difficult it was to get information that was supposed to be public,” she said. “It means that citizens are at a complete loss as to risk. It is particularly hard for those in lower-income neighborhoods to examine documents to find out the conditions in their backyards. The average citizen sure isn’t going to that length.”
In fact, Duncan said that during the course of four months of reporting, she found no one aware of the facilities around them or of the level of risk posed.
Duncan’s quest started when she made an appointment to read the RMPs at the EPA reading room in Atlanta. She was allowed unlimited access to plans from her county, but access to plans from other countries was limited to up to 10 each month.
She was photographed upon entering the EPA offices, escorted to the restroom or the water fountain, and supervised the whole time she examined the files, per EPA policy. She credited EPA officials with being polite and flexible about some things – for example, they allowed her to use a laptop to take notes.
Although the EPA official had to look up and print out copies of the plans, he would not let Duncan take the copies, despite the fact that with the exception of off-site consequence reports, the rest of the documents should be disclosed under federal FOIA.
Duncan was told that if she wanted copies, she should contact the RMP reporting center via an 800 number. She did just that, and was told by an anonymous RMP reporting center official (they refused to give Duncan a name or any information about themselves) to fax the request on stationery from her newspaper.
She did so, and the next thing she knew, her request had been forwarded to the EPA FOIA office in Washington. The EPA responded by telling Duncan it would likely take at least 20 days to fulfill her request — for a document that had already been printed out, in three days, at the regional office! And the EPA said it would be charging search and copying fees.
But how much would the request cost? It took Duncan four different conversations with officials in different EPA branches to determine that the fee would be about $36.
Finally, in December, a month or so after the initial request, the request was forwarded to the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, which handles RMPs. An official in the branch office then said the office would send Duncan the data on CD, free from copying fees.
“No one in the branch office had any idea how the $36 figure had been arrived at, or for what,” Duncan said.
Then things got even more interesting. The data the EPA was offering to send did not include the report summaries — the essence of Duncan’s original request.
“The EPA official told me ‘We don’t know what to do, because we don’t want to give it to you,’” Duncan recalled.
For weeks Duncan repeated the same conversation, over and over. In the meantime the CD with the extraneous data arrived, but it was corrupted.
“I spent two weeks finding a techie to send me a good CD, then the person went on vacation for two weeks without resending it. Finally, a month later, I received the CD,” she said.
Duncan’s series finally ran almost three months after she first requested the RMP summaries.
She never got the copies and never received an explanation. The EPA stopped returning calls, for the most part, and Duncan made do with her voluminous notes taken at the reading room.
“There are no smoking guns here, no vastly irresponsible companies, no cheating,” Duncan said. “What I did find was lax enforcement, lax oversight, failure to list schools within range of toxic chemicals, and the like. What we did was paint a picture of just how difficult it is for citizens to access information they need to provide accountability.”
Exactly. It is a picture we need to paint much more often, as vividly as Duncan and the Macon Telegraph have, the better to remind the public that freedom of information exists for them, not us.
Tagged under: FOI