EPA Said to Have Suppressed, Misclassified Records

05.05.10 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Officials of the Environmental Protection Agency intentionally stopped keeping records concerning potentially hazardous landfills in New Mexico in order to circumvent the disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.  They also marked unclassified records as “confidential” in order to restrict their dissemination, a report (pdf) from the EPA Inspector General found.

One EPA official told the IG that “her section discontinued record keeping in favor of undocumented phone calls and conversations … to prevent the production of documents…. [She] informed us that her section had discontinued record keeping… because of … requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act” that had been filed by Citizens Action New Mexico, a public interest group investigating potential contamination of Albuquerque’s groundwater.

The Inspector General report said that failure to document agency activities is a violation of EPA policy and federal law, which require the preparation and preservation of “adequate and proper” records of agency functions, decisions and transactions.

Another EPA official “withheld [a document] from the public by marking it Confidential, a security classification category” even though it “contained no classified information.”  Officials said they only meant to indicate that the document was a deliberative draft, not that it was classified.  But the IG said that too is a violation of agency policy, which prohibits the use of classification markings on unclassified records.

The Inspector General said that because of defective record keeping, it was unable to determine whether EPA oversight of the New Mexico landfills was actually satisfactory or not.

In a response to the IG, the regional EPA office firmly “denied its staff took inappropriate steps to withhold information from the public.”  But the EPA response “did not address evidence presented in the report that … staff intentionally stopped documenting discussions to avoid responding to the public’s FOIA requests,” the IG countered.

The EPA also replied that “the term ‘confidential’ is commonly used throughout the Agency for many documents” and does not imply that the documents are classified.  But if so, this practice is “in violation of EPA security policies,” the IG said, since the “confidential” label is strictly reserved for classified records.

In a lengthy reply appended to the IG report, the regional EPA office said it did not concur with the findings or the recommendations of the Inspector General, and that local EPA officials had done nothing wrong.  Because of the non-concurrence and the resulting impasse, the issue will be elevated to the EPA deputy administrator for resolution.  See “Region 6 Needs to Improve Oversight Practices,” Office of Inspector General, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, April 14, 2010.

The IG report was first reported by John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal on April 16, and was also covered by Superfund Report on May 3.

From a secrecy policy point of view, the new report illustrates the potential for active Inspector General oversight of agency classification practices, but also the possible limitations of such oversight.  The IG pursued its mandate fearlessly and relentlessly, and presented its conclusions forthrightly, even though they were unwelcome to the agency.  On the other hand, the IG investigation did not succeed in resolving the issues it raised, at least not yet.  Worse, “the estimated cost of this report… is $272,846,” the 28-page IG report stated, which is equivalent to an astounding and unsustainable $10,000 per page.