updated 8/17/2004 10:00:05 AM ET 2004-08-17T14:00:05

About a dozen journalist organizations complained Monday that a proposed Homeland Security Department policy would impede the public release of information on environmental hazards.

In comments filed with the department, the groups said the agency is ditching some routine environmental oversight in the name of security.

“It must not be assumed that a choice needs to be made between the environment and security,” the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government wrote in response to the agency’s directive.

Their complaint involves the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, which requires lengthy environmental studies and public comments to detail the effects a proposed project would have on the environment and ways to minimize that impact.

Homeland Security said it will still conduct its environmental assessments in accordance with federal standards as defined by the 1970 act. But the department added it would not release such assessments to the public if key material is deemed classified or protected.

“In such cases, other appropriate security and environmental officials will ensure that the consideration of environmental effects will be consistent with the letter and intent of NEPA,” the department wrote in its notice in June.

But the coalition said the range of information Homeland Security could withhold is too broad, and the new policy could give the agency “a blank-check authority to declare information secret.”

Homeland Security did not return calls seeking comment Monday.

The Bush administration, which has blamed the environmental act for bureaucratic gridlock, has been seeking to update it.

The public comment period on the department’s directive ended Monday, and the agency must now present its final proposal.

Among the coalition’s recommendations to the department is independent oversight for any nondisclosure decisions and narrower limits on classifying environmental information.

The signatories to the coalition’s comments include the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Associated Press Managing Editors, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the National Press Club.

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