Tuesday, August 20, 2013

IEPA is silent on request for data, emails surrounding large tire fire

When a supply of one million tires caught fire in Hoopeston, IL, there were no environmental monitors to track pollution in the community.

IEPA responded to the event along with firefighters, and has been keeping tabs on pollution ever since. With the fire extinguished, IEPA's primary concern has been shifted to the tire dust kicked up during cleanup.

From university research, we know an uncontrolled tire burn releases cancer-causing chemicals and mutagens (pdf). But it's been 61 days since the fire began, and the public is still in the dark on pollution figures from this massive fire.

I attempted to contact IEPA spokesman Andrew Mason for this information, and received no response. I also submitted an electronic FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) request for emails and environmental data concerning the Hoopeston tire fire.

The IEPA was required under FOIA law to promptly "either comply with or deny a request for public records within 5 business days." And, if it can't produce the documents under that deadline, it must notify the person requesting the documents.

The IEPA did neither of those things.

According to the law, non-response after five days is considered a denial of the request. I've requested more information for this denial from IEPA's FOIA officer, Tom Reuter, but got no reply. I also emailed IEPA's general FOIA address for more information, and also got no reply.

Under FOIA law, IEPA has to disclose this information so long as it does not constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy, unless the "subject's right to privacy outweighs any legitimate public interest in obtaining the information." Disclosing the public duties of pubic employees does not count as an invasion of privacy.

Additionally, state agencies are exempt from complying with a FOIA request if that request would compromise an ongoing criminal investigation. Also exempted are "preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated."

As a second-to-last resort, I've requested a review by the Illinois Attorney General's Public Access Counselor, who has the authority to resolve FOIA and OMA (Open Meetings Act) disputes.

The only other alternative is to sue the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for the environmental data and emails. A court could fine the state agency between $2,500 and $5,000, if it finds the agency willfully and intentionally failed to comply with FOIA.

I'm hoping it won't come to that. For good measure, over the weekend I sent another FOIA request for just the environmental data. The deadline for that request is Friday.

It shouldn't be this hard to learn whether or not your community was doused in carcinogenic chemicals, or to obtain that data from your government. This reinforces my original argument for community-based sensor journalism, or participatory sensing, which would could give citizens up-to-minute data for relatively low cost. I'll have more updates on my effort to create low-cost dust and particulate sensors later in the week.

One of the key things I want to point out here is that the FOIA process is open to everyone. You don't have to be a journalist to request information from the government. You just have to be willing to sit down and write out the request. You don't even have to give your name in the request.

More information about how to request information from your government is available from the PAC's website (pdf).