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Government data harder to get, journalists say

Delayed non-responses to Freedom of Information Act requests is becoming commonplace, according to a report by the Society of Environmental Journalists.
/ Source: The Associated Press

After badgering the Environmental Protection Agency for days to learn where dangerous chemicals were leaking after Hurricane Katrina, Mark Schleifstein still couldn’t get a clear answer.

The top hurricane reporter of The Times-Picayune of New Orleans filed a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act, asking for any reports on spills, accidents or fires.

More than a week later, he has received no response.

“On one hand, they need time to make sure the information is accurate, but if they are sure enough to release to the public, they should release all information as quickly as possible,” he said.

This sort of delayed non-response to a FOIA request is becoming commonplace, according to a report released Monday by the Society of Environmental Journalists. The report, drawn from 55 interviews with environmental reporters nationwide, shows government compliance with FOIA has worsened considerably since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“The most disturbing thing is that information that was once routinely accessible without a FOIA, now various agencies are requiring journalists to file a FOIA,” said Elizabeth Bluemink, a reporter with The Juneau (Alaska) Empire and co-writer of the report.

The reporters surveyed, all members of the journalism trade group, reported significant delays — some up to a year — before receiving the information they requested under FOIA. Many reported that the information was of poor or incomplete quality, with paragraphs or entire pages blacked out. They also reported difficulty monitoring the status of their requests and delays due to waffling over fees.

With some exceptions, federal agencies are mandated under the 1966 law to provide responses to public requests for information in a timely manner.

In the report, the Labor and Defense Departments, the Food and Drug Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration were most frequently cited as sluggish in their response times.

Ken Ward, a mine safety reporter at The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, has filed numerous FOIA requests to the MSHA, an arm of the Labor Department.

“I have had both success and a lot of frustration,” he said, noting one request related to a January 2002 methane explosion that killed three miners.

Ward asked for copies of the mine’s prior inspection reports, a request that had previously been filled within a quick fax after the agency received his phone call.

“There was nothing about the ongoing investigation or any secret squirrelly stuff,” he said. “But it took me almost a year to get that.”

MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot said, “The information Mr. Ward requested was part of an ongoing investigation and specifically exempted from under FOIA and was released immediately after the investigation’s conclusion.”

Bluemink said the delays are causing many reporters not to file FOIA requests.

“They have heard the horror stories and say, ’I’m not going to do this anymore,”’ she said.

It can also affect the relationship between a reporter and sources.

“It’s another reason for journalists to feel distrustful of the people and the agencies they are working with,” she said. “This really undermines what newspapers are there to do.”