EPA withholding Katrina pollution info claim

Journalists working in America have accused the Environmental Protection Agency of withholding information on pollution and contamination in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.

Under the US Freedom of Information Act journalists, and other members of the public, are entitled to view almost all information held by publicly-accountable bodies such as the EPA.

While there are some circumstances in which the authorities are entitled to keep sensitive information under lock and key, such as to protect national security, there seems to be no legal case for the agency to refuse to supply the press with the ins and out of pollution problems following a disaster.

The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) has attacked the agency for dragging its heels, however, as it failed to provide reporters with the facts even after formal requests had been made under the Act.

“While the exact nature of the environmental damage done by Katrina may not be known for some time, it is clear that the agency should have some initial data that can and should be made public,” said a spokesman for the society.

“For example, the EPA website notes the agency is compiling a comprehensive database of potential pollution sources and using aircraft to assess spills and chemical releases.

“Even preliminary information from these EPA assessments would be helpful to environmental reporters trying to inform the public about potential threats to the environment and public health and safety.”

Information has now begun to trickle out of the EPA archives, with limited data released on sampling throughout the city showing some risk of e-coli, as well as pockets contaminated by a cocktail of hazardous chemicals.

Lead levels in flood waters in the city centre’s North Claiborne Avenue, for example, were over 15 times safe limits, while low levels of mercury, barium and other pollutants were found all over the city.

Nevertheless, frustrated by the slow release, SEJ has published a report A Flawed Tool – Environmental Reporters’ Experiences with the
Freedom of Information Act
citing the problems flagged up by Katrina as well as past grievances.

The report calls for the EPA to respond quickly to all requests for information and to publish data likely to be the subject of repeat requests, such as any information on the likely environmental impact of Katrina, on its website.

Whether the agency, snowed under with work on the ground, will have the resources or inclination to respond remains to be seen.

By Sam Bond

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