As a maritime lawyer I’m always looking for a courtroom edge. A secret, once revealed, will often turn the tide in my client’s favor. These secrets must be juiced clear of the rind with documents obtained from, say, the Coast Guard under the Freedom of Information Act or online oil pollution incident reports from the National Response Center. Often, these reports and documents are tracked down through dogged hunting and with cooperative government agencies providing access.
But I sense a change afoot with the federal government, which is battening down its hatches and slipping us the proverbial bird when we ask for documents. Legally mandated deadlines by which federal agencies must respond to FOIA requests seem to be ignored. Responses, if they come at all, arrive months after the request is made. Lately, when I ask the Coast Guard for even the most basic information regarding an incident, I typically get a response so devoid of sense I honestly hope that they’re intentionally giving me the run around.
Last year, I noticed the NRC’s website of reported pollution incidents was taken offline. It had a handy search tool you could use to filter and identify pollution incidents. When it reappeared, the search tool was missing and the data was provided in one big downloadable file. I felt the agency was telling us to “see if you can find anything useful now.” I wonder what phone call was made or email sent to ruin what’d once been a research jewel.
The Freedom of Information Act is a marvelous law that entitles you to obtain unreleased information and documents controlled by the government, but it’s in need of preventative maintenance. Last year, a proposed update was floated and then sunk by Congress. Now we’re left with tired iron and excuses about understaffing and how such requests aren’t a priority.
Like the canary in the coal mine, this isn’t a good sign. FOIA was meant to provide transparency and you should clamber for its continued good health.
With a willing client in hand, I intend to chase these agencies down in the courtroom, call them to task and demand compliance with the law.