EPA on track to receive more FOIA requests this year than in 2017

The Environmental Protection Agency is on track to receive more Freedom of Information Act requests this fiscal year than in the first year of the Trump administration, according to government data.

While many agency FOIA offices saw a surge in new requests during President Donald Trump’s first year in office, the rising tide of FOIA requests at the EPA doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

Scott Pruitt
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt

According to FOIAOnline, the EPA received 7,784 new FOIA requests since the beginning of fiscal 2018. In this same time period in fiscal 2017, the agency had received 7,564 FOIA requests.

By the end of FY 2017, the EPA had 13,597 total active FOIA requests, according to data from FOIA.gov. Of those, more than 2,000 requests had been pending since the start of the fiscal year.

Of the 11,518 new requests that the EPA received in FY 2017, the agency partially granted 5,083 FOIA requests and fully denied 781 requests by citing FOIA exemptions.

The EPA’s press office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Larry Gottesman, the director of the national FOIA program at EPA, told Federal News Radio in January 2017 that the agency receives approximately 12,000 requests per year, and cited the incoming administration as a reason for the uptick in new requests.

In a letter last April, Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) asked EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt if the four email accounts he uses for official purposes are all searchable under FOIA.

“EPA has reiterated Administrator Pruitt’s commitment to me that all of his email accounts are searched for Freedom of Information Act requests,” Barrasso said after receiving a response from the agency.”

The EPA also told Barrasso that the agency would conduct a full review following his letter.

Meanwhile, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General is conducting its own audit into Pruitt’s use of multiple email accounts following letters it received from the committee’s ranking member Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Mass.)

After several unsuccessful FOIA requests aimed at Pruitt’s email records, an environmental nonprofit organization has filed a motion in D.C. District Court to depose him.

Center for Biological Diversity, a group that promotes the protection of endangered species, filed a motion for discovery last Friday, asking a federal judge to depose Pruitt on how his office creates and maintains official records, and whether those records comply with FOIA.

In February 2017, the Center for Biological Diversity filed two FOIA requests, one for Pruitt’s calendar and schedule records, and another for “emails, letters, text messages, instant messages, voicemails, phone logs, and any other correspondence sent to or from the administrator.”

In both cases, the FOIA request was limited to the first 11 days of Pruitt serving at the EPA.

At first, the EPA told the group their requests were not “reasonably described,” but later agreed to process the requests in July 2017. By November 2017, the agency began releasing records as requested, but only turned over emails received by Pruitt, and did not release any emails sent by him.

Hartl said he’s encouraged that the EPA’s inspector general will also look into Pruitt’s use of multiple email accounts.

“The EPA, I would say, did not do a very good job responding to our FOIA requests,” Brett Hartl, the government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an interview. “We received responses that seemed to suggest that he never actually sent email — he would only receive them.”

Hartl said his organization filed its FOIA requests early in Pruitt’s tenure as EPA administrator as a way to gauge this agency’s compliance to the open records law.

Last year, an Oklahoma judge ruled that Pruitt had violated public records laws while serving as the state’s attorney general.

“We’re very excited to see what they come up with, but those things take a lot of time,” he said.

In 2013, the National Archives and Records Administration ruled that government officials could use undisclosed government email accounts to conduct their work, as long as those accounts were still searchable under FOIA.

While Hartl said asking a district court to depose Pruitt is “a rather extraordinary request,” he said he was hopeful that the judge will help shine a light into communications at the EPA.

“To this day, I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to this question: How does Scott Pruitt communicate with other people inside the agency and outside the agency? And that’s a very important question to have answered truthfully,” he said.

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