Policy: Environment & Energy

EPA manipulates the FOIA to help Big Green

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Ron Arnold,Columnists,EPA,Analysis,Competitive Enterprise Institute,Energy and Environment,FOIA

There they go again.

“The Environmental Protection Agency has been caught placing hurdles in the path of groups it views as hostile or inconvenient to its agenda,” veteran Freedom of Information Act hurdle-jumping attorney Chris Horner told me this week.

While working for years to get FOIA requests filled by the EPA for the Competitive Enterprise Institute and others, Horner has regularly faced delays, denials of fee-waivers, and wars of attrition.

But industry advocates recently caught EPA miscreants giving free government services to friends.

“We found that EPA provides overnight service, and even circumvents the law to provide documents to its chosen, ideologically aligned partners,” Horner said.

So we now know how EPA’s Big Green open-door policy works, with names and dates, and that the EPA Inspector General is, finally, investigating.

It all came to light in early August when ExxonMobil's Baton Rouge, La., operation paid a $2.3 million settlement to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for various violations.

That got headlines, but also brought attention to a 2012 Naptha leak at the same facility (with a separate $61,000 fine but no finding of actual harm).

A taxpayer-funded New Orleans outfit called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (with more than $1 million in 2011-2012 revenue, including $168,000 EPA Office of Environmental Justice and Tribal Affairs grants) disliked the low fine and turned the leak into overblown scandal.

How? With friends in EPA’s bureaucracy and a chance encounter with then-EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. She visited an environmental fair on July 11 last year and walked by LABB’s table where staffers told her their version of the Naptha leak and settlement. In response, Jackson blurted, “that’s criminal!”

The next day LABB program director Anna Hrybyk and two others flew to Washington “to request greater accountability of the refinery.”

Four days later, EPA Region 6 enforcers appeared unannounced at the Baton Rouge refinery. Their 48-page report was finalized in November.

A few weeks later, Hrybyk emailed Region 6’s Air Toxics Enforcement Section Chief Esteban Herrera: “Long time!!! I hope you are well. I am wondering if you know if the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge inspection report from Minerva has come out yet for public consumption. Thanks!”

Minerva De Leon was the lead investigator. Hrybyk followed up the next day: “Hi Este! What’s the status of the report? As you can tell, I am eager to read it!!!” A couple of hours later, Herrera responded with: “Sam says yes. Let me see if I can get a copy.”

The “Sam” is Samuel Tates, chief of EPA Region 6 Surveillance, De Leon’s boss. All very chummy with Hrybyk, Este, Minerva, and Sam.

Hrybyk had her redacted copy from EPA’s Jennifer Gibbs six days later without going through FOIA — and leaked it to the New Orleans Times Picayune for some nasty headlines.

But Hrybyk couldn’t challenge the censorship without going through some FOIA hoops. So Gibbs kindly told her exactly how to get the report uncensored despite trade secret laws protecting confidential business information.

Hrybyk received the uncensored report February 6 of this year, leaked it to the Times Picayune, and posted it online.

But it proved nothing because the inspection report is just accusations. Much more will happen before EPA can render a final judgment and it requires due process of law.

The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association sent a FOIA request asking EPA how the Bucket Brigade got industry trade secrets. EPA’s response told the whole story of the pointless Naptha brouhaha.

Release of the Hrybyk email trail coincided with notice that the EPA IG had launched “preliminary research” into the agency’s “process for deciding to release information requested under the Freedom of Information Act.”

LMOGA President Chris John wrote members of Louisiana's congressional delegation saying, "if activist groups with an agenda of shutting down oil and gas production in Louisiana are receiving special accommodations from a federal regulator, that is deeply concerning."

The EPA IG may find “that’s criminal.”

Washington Examiner columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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