Freedom of Information Act

Had trouble getting info from the government? Tell it to the Datamine project for Sunshine Week

I'd planned for this third of my Sunshine Week posts to write about examples of folks who have had trouble getting the government to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. Public Employees for Environmental responsibility, for example, has a doozy.

I’d also planned to dip into some analysis of the situation from the 30,000-foot view, such as the AP's look at the Obama administration’s increased use of FOIA exemptions by Sharon Theimer.

But today I heard about this cool project in which the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation are asking citizens to contribute to their Datamine project for Sunshine Week. So instead of a longer post, here’s the text of a post I made today to the Society of Environmental Journalists’ SEJ-Talk listserv:

Folks – let me encourage you to take part in this interesting project by the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation to find out about how citizens are doing when they try to get information from the government: http://bit.ly/c4FsRa .

The questions they’re asking citizens – and journalists are citizens, too – to answer are:

• Has the government denied your attempt to FOIA certain information?
• Are you aware of any government reports or data that are unnecessarily hidden from public view?
• Have you successfully obtained government data, only to find it difficult or impractical to use in today’s electronic environment?

It seems like a cool project. I plan to respond. It’s timed, of course, for Sunshine Week. So reply in the next few days if you can.

Slow government action under Freedom of Information Act = a less robust democracy

I was driving the other day when my celphone started vibrating. I pulled it from my pocket. It was a call from a northern Virginia number I didn't recognize. I dutifully pulled over and answered. It was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling back about a Freedom of Information Act request -- one that I filed nearly three months earlier, back in the first days of winter. Note that spring starts this Saturday. The phone call I took as I sat by the side of the road in my two-seater Honda was the first time I had spoken with an EPA official about the request. The story for which I was gathering information when I filed the request ran Jan. 12.

Now, at the time I filed the request, I was desperate for information about what the EPA had to say about a class of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. I was putting together a story on new research that suggests dangerously high concentrations of these PAH chemicals may be coming off parking lots with coal-tar sealants.

Why was I desperate? Because, as I explained yesterday in kicking off this series of Sunshine Week posts, the EPA had simply refused to have a meaningful conversation about what was -- and still is -- emerging as a major potential threat to public health. (It's also a threat that has not been written about very much, btw. Our story for MSNBC was far and away the highest profile the issue has achieved to date.)

The caller from an EPA northern Virginia office was Crystal Samuels. She wanted to know if I still wanted that information. In her introduction, she was apologetic about the time lapse, telling me: