The EPA gets a D grade for information access

The Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch), awarded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a D grade in its 2015 Access to Information Scorecard, which analyzes the performance of the 15 U.S. federal agencies that receive the majority of the nation's FOIA requests.

The EPA, which received around 10,000 FOIA requests in FY 2013, was one of the few agencies in the Center's survey that scored worse than in the prior annual scorecard report. The EPA's grade was lower than the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) score, even though DHS processed over 230,000 requests in FY 2013. Although the environmental agency fared better than the State Department (which got an F for openness according to the Center's scorecard analysis), the EPA scored below the Justice Department, which got a C score. Overall, of the 15 agencies analyzed, the EPA was listed in the "Lowest Performers" category. In all, the EPA processed only 54% of its FOIA requests for the year reported in the scorecard.

The EPA's low score may be linked to the complexity of the FOIA requests placed with the agency. According to the scorecard, many agencies, like the Department of Defense and the Justice Department, fielded largely simple requests, while the majority of the EPA's requests were complex in nature. Complex requests may lead to backlogs as agencies work to gather responsive materials for the more difficult requests. The study notes that agencies respond to simple FOIA requests much more quickly than the more complex FOIA queries.

The EPA's FOIA request appeal record also hurt its information access score. The EPA denied every one of the 184 FOIA requester appeals cases filed with the agency in FY 2013. The lack of reversals on appeal does not bode well for future requesters who appeal EPA FOIA determinations unless a change of appeals policy is considered. The Center points out that a meaningful, robust appeals process can reduce FOIA disputes and avoid litigation in the future.

Another issue that decreased the EPA's grade was the agency's failure to update its FOIA regulations in the last decade. The last time the agency updated its FOIA regulations was on November 5, 2002, according to the Center for Effective Government. However, the existing regulations were given a B+ grade by the Center, dinged only for lacking a foreseeable harm standard for withholding information and providing adequate time limits to appeal.

On the plus side, the EPA was a top performer in the Internet presence arena, offering online visitors an "informative and interactive" FOIA website and their other online information resources. However, the Center noted that the EPA's online reading room lacked a search function and the agency's FOIA request logs.

Also, the Center explained that the EPA had positive information access qualities that could not be easily quantified by scorecard grades. For example, although the EPA and the National Archives and Records Administration were key partners in developing FOIAonline, an multi-agency FOIA portal, that leadership was not measured by the scorecard study.

It should also be noted that another environmental information producing agency, the Department of Agriculture, got a solid B score for its information access policies. The Center claims that the Department of Agriculture could move up to an A grade in 2016 by updating its website in the year to come.

More information about the report, and a link to the actual report, is available here.