Late Thursday, the Sierra Club sued the EPA for not responding quickly enough to a request filed in October under the Freedom of Information Act.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California near the organization’s Oakland, Calif., headquarters, accused the agency of “failing to produce requested agency records” regarding changes to the agency’s FOIA policies made under EPA chief Scott Pruitt.
In other words, the Sierra Club is suing over the group’s outstanding FOIA request to learn about how the agency processes FOIA requests.
The lawsuit claimed the EPA failed to make public any changes to “policies or guidance” regarding how the agency intended to comply with FOIA requests in the Trump administration.
The EPA received 11,493 requests under FOIA in fiscal 2017 — 995 more than the previous year. In November, Pruitt said his staff has prioritized clearing out the backlog of records requests filed during the Obama administration.
But the Sierra Club argues the agency was unresponsive to its request for information about changes to the EPA's FOIA policy itself — except for a single Jan. 9 letter waiving a fee and assigning the case a request number. The Sierra Club argued the EPA was required by law to respond more thoroughly within 20 business days.
“We’ve had complete radio silence from the EPA on this FOIA request,” said Thomas J. Cmar, an attorney for Earthjustice representing Sierra Club in the case.
The group's claim "does hold water because of the agency’s failure to respond by the statutory deadline, which gave it the right to go to court as of mid-December," said Dan Metcalfe, a FOIA expert and former director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information and Privacy under four administrations.
On Friday, the EPA said it does not comment on pending litigation.
High-level officials at the EPA and the Interior Department have kept close tabs on FOIA requests, The Washington Post reported in a December story, which was cited in the lawsuit. Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups have accused the agency of dragging its feet in fulfilling requests.
“Pruitt has a real penchant for secrecy,” Sierra Club senior attorney Elena Saxonhouse said.
Saxonhouse said the office Pruitt oversaw as Oklahoma attorney general also responded slowly to public-records request under state law, with some email correspondence between that office and the fossil-fuel industry first sought in 2015 released only under court order after Pruitt was confirmed as EPA administrator.
That approach to public-records requests, Saxonhouse argued, “followed [Pruitt] to EPA."
Cmar told another federal court in New York in a separate case brought by the Sierra Club and three other groups that hard copies of redacted documents about the delay of a water-pollution rule were submitted for a “senior management review” by the EPA before release.
Asked about the practice of reviewing FOIA requests by senior officials, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony J. Sun contended that “the new administration put in a procedure for this case — not all cases, but this particular case."
The Sierra Club has feuded with Pruitt since the administrator’s first day on the job. In his opening address to EPA employees, Pruitt nodded to naturalist John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892.
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” Pruitt said, quoting Muir to emphasize a more business-friendly approach he planned to bring to the agency.
The Sierra Club’s leader, Michael Brune, responded furiously.
In a statement later that day, Brune said: “John Muir is rolling over in his grave.”
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— He said... : During his address to Republican lawmakers at their annual retreat on Thursday, President Trump told the room he initially had no interest in the fate of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “I never appreciated ANWR so much," Trump said, adding that “a friend of mine called who is in that world and in that business, and asked: 'Is it true you're thinking about opening ANWR?' …yeah, I think we're going to get it. He said, 'Are you kidding? That is the biggest thing, by itself.' He said Ronald Reagan and every president since has wanted to get ANWR approved. And after that I said, 'Oh, make sure it's in the bill…I really didn't care about it, but when I heard that everybody wanted for 40 years they've been trying to get it appeared, I said make sure you don't lose ANWR.'”
...he said: But Alaska’s Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan said that’s not exactly how it happened: “No, no, no, look,” Sullivan told The Washington Post’s Paul Kane and Erica Werner. “We had the opportunity to brief the president last year. It was early, like February or March. Over an hour, in the Oval, you know, that’s a lot of time…. “It was maps, it was on his desk, Zinke was there. And it was all about Alaska, all about Alaska issues, all about our priorities. And we talked about ANWR.”
— Elsewhere, Alaska's other Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, pushed back against the EPA's effort to remove climate change from its portfolio. "Let's be realistic, let's be honest about the changes that we are seeing," she said in an interview on the "Columbia Energy Exchange" podcast.
— St. Louis Superfund cleanup, ordered: Pruitt ordered a long-awaited cleanup of a toxic site northwest of St. Louis, Mo. Pruitt decided to partially excavate tons of radioactive material from the West Lake Landfill over the next five years at an expected cost of $236 million to the liable companies, going beyond a 2008 solution proposed by the George W. Bush administration.
The Post’s Brady Dennis reports the move "was intended to be Exhibit A in demonstrating Pruitt’s commitment to revitalizing the agency’s Superfund program."
— Interior “streamlines” process for land drilling: A memo released Interior has ordered its field offices “to simplify and streamline the leasing process” so federal leases for the oil and gas industry can be expedited “to ensure quarterly oil and gas lease sales are consistently held,” The Post’s Darryl Fears reports. Stephen Bloch, the legal director for the Southern Wilderness Alliance, called the move “lease first, think later.”
— Connecticut casino, blocked: Two American Indian tribes have accused Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of holding up plans to establish a third casino in the state after the secretary and other top department officials met with lobbyists for MGM Resorts International. Zinke and the officials met with MGM lobbyists and Republican lawmakers who support the gambling giant before the secretary’s refusal to sign off on the tribes’ plans, Politico reported. The news organization cited Zinke’s schedule, lobbying registration and other documents, noting its not clear whether the tribes’ project in Connecticut was discussed.
— Zinke updates his staff: Zinke held a town hall with employees yesterday, and signaled more budget cuts were ahead for the department. "One side of the budget keeps on growing, and the other side of the budget keeps on getting pressure on it," Zinke said, per E&E News. "We're on the side of the budget that keeps on getting pressure." He also referred to the proposed major overhaul of the department. Final details of that plan is expected to be revealed this month with the 2019 budget request, E&E notes.
More from the town hall: Zinke told employees Trump omitted any mention of national parks during his State of the Union address because the speech was shortened, via HuffPost’s Chris D’Angelo. Zinke said, “the specific parts about us were lined out" but still included in a forthcoming infrastructure proposal:
— The public supports more flood spending: A new Pew Charitable Trusts poll found 89 percent of Americans support future federal spending on construction in flood-prone areas to better weather flooding. That’s a seven-point jump from last year, following a year of historic storms.
— How Heartland helped Trump's SOTU: The Heartland Institute, a libertarian organization known for its climate skepticism, touted its contribution to Trump’s State of the Union address. “The Heartland Institute has been advising many in the administration on climate and energy policy, so we were certainly encouraged and excited the president promoted his pro-energy, pro-America vision in his State of the Union address,” said Tim Huelskamp, president of the Heartland Institute and a former Kansas Republican congressman, per the Washington Examiner. The only source of energy mentioned by name in Trump's speech was coal.
— NASA wants to be ready to study the next big volcanic eruption: Why? Besides wanting to learn more about the phenomenon itself, NASA says a big volcanic eruption is "a natural analog of an idea that has existed on the fringes of science for years: geoengineering, or intervening in the atmosphere to deliberately cool the planet," the New York Times reports.
— Snow in the desert: For the first time in 50 years, it snowed in the desert in Morocco. "Record-keeping is tricky in North Africa simply because of the small population," The Post's Angela Fritz reports, "but the Morocco meteorology agency appears to have confirmed that, yes, this is a very weird thing."
— Solar in a store near you: Tesla is expanding its solar division by rolling out "selling spaces" in 800 Home Depot locations that will be “staffed by Tesla employees and can demonstrate its solar panels and Powerwall battery,” Bloomberg News reported. Lowe’s is also in talks with the company, per the report.
— Electric future: Nearly half of city buses on the road around the world will be electric within seven years, a new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts. The number of buses will more than triple, spiking from 386,000 in 2017 to about 1.2 million in 2025. China is also expected to lead in the market.
— Chevron sues another oil company: In response to lawsuits from California cities suing Chevron and other oil companies over their contribution to climate change, Chevron wants another oil company, Statoil, to have to pay up, the New Republic’s Emily Atkin writes. "While Chevron agrees that the Plaintiffs’ claims are meritless ... Statoil (an agency or instrumentality of Norway) — as well as potentially the many other sovereign governments that use and promote fossil fuels — must be joined as third-party defendants in this matter,” the complaint reads.
And here are a couple of longreads for your weekend:
- What happens when you strap a camera to a polar bar? The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer writes about new research that explores the vulnerability of the bears to undernourishment, with videos showing the day-to-day lives of the animals without humans around — even though they are still touched by man-made climate change.
- "You don’t want those numbers to be wrong:" The EPA has acknowledged the emissions factors the agency uses are largely unreliable. The Center for Public Integrity explains while the agency says it’s been working on the issue of flawed numbers for a decade, some experts warn it hasn’t done enough.
Animal Planet's 14th annual "Puppy Bowl" will feature some dogs from areas hit by natural disasters, People reports: