Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is improperly withholding documents detailing its new scientific priorities and programs, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite pledges of transparency by the Obama administration, EPA refuses to divulge its proposed research “transformation” or the new “business model” guiding it.
The documents at issue consist of 78 pages of PowerPoint presentations from the EPA Office of Research & Development (ORD) Division Directors Meeting that took place in Washington, DC on November 6, 2008. Following that meeting, ORD assembled a task force to put the new science model into application. In denying the bulk of PEER’s request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), EPA claimed the materials will not be released because they are “deliberative” or pre-decisional in nature.
Based upon fragmentary materials that PEER has otherwise obtained, EPA plans to mandate that all of its scientific inquiries employ an “integrated multidisciplinary approach” to address only pre-selected topics of “broad national interest”. Yet to be answered are basic questions, such as –
- What new national-impact research issues will EPA address, how are they chosen and which scientific questions will EPA now abandon?
- How will EPA obtain answers to scientific questions about hundreds of local and regional issues that arise in agency permitting and enforcement?
- Are ORD’s current five-year research plans to be jettisoned? How and when will the nearly 2,000 EPA/ORD scientists learn what their new marching orders are?
“This plan may divorce EPA’s entire science program from its day-in-day-out operations which address local threats confronting our communities,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a biologist and attorney who formerly worked at EPA. “This supposed ‘Science Transformation’ has a one-size-fits-all approach that seems the antithesis of good science.”
On the day after his inauguration, President Obama ordered federal agencies to exercise a “presumption of disclosure”. In March, Attorney General Holder issued a directive that the Justice Department will defend agencies against FOIA lawsuits only when “disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of the statutory exemptions”. The PEER suit will test whether EPA’s stance represents administration policy.
“EPA contends that not a single comma from these presentations is releasable but that makes little legal sense,” said PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson, who filed the complaint today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “Apparently, EPA did not get President Obama’s memo that from now on ‘openness prevails’.”