A federal judge has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to release tens of thousands of emails and other documents involving the agency’s top-level political appointees — including acting chief Andrew Wheeler — in a move activists hope will clarify how industry interests may be influencing their decisions.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, in a Dec. 26 ruling, ordered the release of about 20,000 emails exchanged between industry groups and 25 Trump officials within the next 10 months. The timeline will start as soon as the federal government fully reopens.
The environmental group Sierra Club filed the public-records request for the documents from EPA officials responsible for the rollback of dozens of rules put in place by the previous administration to combat the emissions of climate-warming gases and other pollutants.
When the agency failed to fulfill the Freedom of Information Act request on time, the group sued. It successfully argued in court that documents concerning Wheeler, a onetime coal lobbyist whom President Trump said he wants to nominate to run the agency permanently, should be made public as soon as possible.
“This is a big win for government transparency and accountability,” said Elena Saxonhouse, senior attorney at the Sierra Club. “FOIA really requires you to get these documents to requesters on a time frame where they’re still useful.”
The court rejected arguments from the EPA that it is too overwhelmed with FOIA requests to respond by the legal deadlines. The agency had initially asked the court to have until 2022 — halfway into the next presidential term — to complete the requests.
The Sierra Club is also seeking documents from Bill Wehrum, the former corporate lawyer chosen by Trump to head the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation; Nancy Beck, a former chemical industry lobbying now serving as one of the top officials at the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention; and Albert “Kell” Kelly, a former head of a task force meant to revitalize the EPA’s toxic-cleanup program who once received a lifetime ban from the banking industry.
The Sierra Club, one of the nation’s oldest environmental groups, has emerged as one of the Trump administration’s fiercest critics. During former EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s time in office, the Sierra Club’s flurry of public-records requests uncovered a cozy relationship between Pruitt and business executives in industries the EPA regulates.
Previous emails the group obtained revealed that Pruitt used government resources to try to purchase a used mattress from Trump’s Washington hotel and to secure a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife.
Those and other news stories about Pruitt’s ethical and managerial lapses led the White House to ask for Pruitt’s resignation in July.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth D. Laporte cited Pruitt’s departure — and Wheeler’s subsequent elevation to the top of the agency — as among the “persuasive reasons for the urgency” of the Sierra Club’s requests for documents pertaining to him.
Since Trump took office, the EPA and other agencies overseeing federal environmental policy have been flooded with FOIA requests. Inquires to the EPA’s Office of the Administrator, for example, jumped from 203 during fiscal 2016 to 1,045 during the following 12-month period.
Other environmental policymakers have responded to that deluge more proactively. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the Department of the Interior proposed a new rule imposing a monthly limit on requesters and allowing public-records officers to decline to fill requests they deem “extremely broad or vague."
Environmental organizations such as the Wilderness Society, which frequently files FOIA requests with the Interior Department, say the move would violate the law by granting bureaucrats so much discretion.
“It seems to not only violate the spirit of the act, but the act itself,” said Nada Culver, senior counsel for the group.
Daniel Jorjani, Interior’s principal deputy solicitor, published that yet-to-be-finalized rule amid a partial government shutdown that has prevented the department from performing many of its regular duties, such as emptying trash cans and servicing bathrooms at National Park Service sites.
The shutdown also means the Interior Department is not accepting any new FOIA requests, despite complaints from critics the department needs no staff on site to accept the requests.