According to a press release issued by the Society of Enviornmental Journalists, the widely-lauded New Orleans Times-Picayune has been frustrated in using the Federal Freedom of Information Act to obtain important information about pollution in the flooded city:
It’s been more than a week since The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans turned in desperation to the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to answer a basic question: Where are dangerous chemicals leaking as a result of Hurricane Katrina?
The paper&rqsquo;s lead hurricane reporter, Mark Schleifstein, had been asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that question for days — without an answer. So he filed a request under FOIA. Even though the federal statute provides for “expedited review” when a situation “could reasonably be expected to pose an imminent threat to the life or physical safety” of the public, he still has not received a response.
EPA officials held a press conference last week to address pollution in New Orleans floodwaters, and late in the week released some water-quality testing results. But they still have not fulfilled the reporters’ FOIA request and answer that basic question: Where are dangerous chemicals leaking as a result of Hurricane Katrina?
The tale is an important reminder that even in the US, which British open government advocates like to hold up as an ideal in this regard, journalists find using public access laws a very frustrating experience.
The SEJ has released a report indicating that compliance with the U.S. federal FOIA has been deteriorating since 11 September 2001, terrorist attacks, according to the SEJ report being released today, “A Flawed Tool — Environmental Reporters’ Experiences with the Freedom of Information Act” (PDF).
The report is based on interviews with 55 members of the organisation and found that delays in releasing information of up to a year are common. Once released, many documents continue to be heavily redacted. Because of these problems, more than half of the SEJ members questioned said they don’t use FOIA requests in their work.
It all sounds very similar to the complaints I have heard from the British journalists whom I have been speaking to about their use of the new UK FOIA.
Worryingly, though, the release also points to one phenonmenon that I hve not heard about here (yet). Apparently, some agencies “have started requiring journalists to use the cumbersome, time-consuming FOIA process to obtain information once freely disclosed”.