OAKLAND – The Sierra Club has asked a federal court in Oakland to order the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to more timely produce records the grassroots environmental organization has been requesting for almost a year under the Freedom of Information Act.
The EPA improperly denied waiver fees in two of the Sierra Club's four requests, according to the club's complaint filed June 11 in U.S. District Court for California's Northern District, Oakland Division. The EPA allegedly also has not responded to three of the Sierra Club's July 2017 public records requests for external communications between the executive assistant of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and "specified senior EPA staff," and to a May request for EPA text messaging practices and logs.
"Along with Mr. Pruitt's schedules and other records kept by his executive assistant, the July 2017 requests seek schedules and records of communications between new EPA staff with troubling ties to polluting industries regulated by EPA and individuals outside the agency," the complaint said.
"For example, Nancy Beck is a former executive of the American Chemical Association; Elizabeth Bennett is a former lobbyist for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, whose members have been historically reliant on coal and lobby against emissions-cutting regulations; Christian Palich is the former president of the Ohio Coal Association; Troy Lyons is a former lobbyist for Hess Corporation and BP (formerly British Petroleum), both multinational companies engaged in the exploration and production of oil and gas; and Byron Brown is a former staff member to Senator James Inhofe, long known as Congress' most-prominent skeptic of climate change science and a frequent recipient of contributions from fossil fuel companies like Murray Energy and ExxonMobil," the complaint states
The Sierra Club is asking the federal court to declare the EPA in violation of FOIA's 20-day statutory deadline, to order the EPA to release the requested records "promptly and at no cost" and to award litigation costs, attorneys' fees and "such other relief as the court may deem just and proper," the complaint said.
The litigation in Oakland is one of a spate of lawsuits and other action by the Sierra Club and others since Pruitt, a businessman and former Oklahoma state senator, was confirmed as the EPA's 14th Administrator in February.
In May, the Sierra Club filed a suit against the EPA over alleged FOIA violations in requests concerning two agency nominees. The same month, the Sierra Club issued a single question "pop quiz" about the EPA that asked, "When is embattled climate-denying Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt willing to say that reducing carbon emissions is a good thing?" The answer given in that quiz was, in part, "Only when he's granting a favor to a powerful industry (and their Pruitt-pals-turned-lobbyists), harming public health and the environment, and contradicting science."
In its Oakland litigation, the Sierra Club claims the EPA has said an unacceptable amount of time will be required to fulfill the FOIA requests.
"On June 1, 2018, EPA indicated in a series of emails that the estimated dates of completion for the first, second and third requests are Jan. 10, 2019, Jan. 14, 2019, and Jan. 16, 2019, respectively," the complaint said.
"EPA arrived at these estimates by adding 388 working days to the date on which each request was submitted."
The EPA sent the Sierra Club "nearly identical emails" or its outstanding FOIA requests but estimated completion dates are neither accurate nor enforceable, the complaint said.
"Beyond these communications, EPA has not provided Sierra Club with any indication as to whether EPA intends to comply with Sierra Club's three FOIA requests," the complaint said.