For Immediate Release: Thursday, August 26, 2021
Contact: Kyla Bennett (508) 230-9933; Kirsten Stade firstname.lastname@example.org
EPA Illegally Destroying Internal Records
Assessments and Comments Routinely Overwritten, Obliterating Drafts
Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency illegally allows the original versions of its internal communications and draft documents to be erased when they are edited, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This practice violates the Federal Records Act by shrouding the agency’s decision-making process from outside review and retaining only the final version of key documents.
The PEER complaint centers on two classes of documents that have been consistently discarded, contrary to law as well as EPA’s own records retention policy:
- Alterations of chemical risk assessments by managers in which both the identity of the manager and the alterations themselves are not apparent; and
- Internal comments related to the development of its Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, in which EPA software overwrote the original and all prior versions any time there was an edit. Thus, only the “final” version was saved.
“It is as if EPA memorializes its internal decision-making in disappearing ink,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney, noting that the agency could, but does not, require a “track changes” function be activated to capture changes made and the identity of the author, as well. “EPA’s record-keeping practices allow unknown officials to make changes while disguising what precisely was changed and who changed them.”
The practice of managers altering chemical risk assessments is now under evaluation by EPA’s Office of Inspector General, but the IG will need to engage in IT forensics to decipher which official doctored the assessments to remove risk information.
This issue is not merely about paperwork. The chemical assessments are used to prevent harmful exposures to workers and consumers. These alterations constitute direct threats to public safety.
The Federal Records Act requires agencies to preserve records explaining their decisions, policies, and actions. PEER is asking the National Archives and Records Administration to intervene to prevent the EPA from destroying more records and adopt safeguards to prevent any recurrences.
Besides the legal violations, these practices frustrate any sense of transparency in EPA decision-making and belie the recent pledge by EPA Administrator Michael Regan committing his agency to a regime of “transparency and operating in a “’fishbowl.’”
“In practice, EPA operates an opaque fishbowl in which we know there are fish, but we just cannot see them,” added Whitehouse, pointing out that the agency has yet to act on these matters even after PEER brought them to the attention of senior officials. “These are glaring record-keeping deficiencies which should be fixed immediately.”