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Proposed FOIA Rule Provokes Response

Nearly 150 organizations, including the North Carolina Coastal Federation, signed a comment letter addressing concerns about a proposed rule put forward by the Department of Interior on the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

“This rule would revise the regulations that the Department of the Interior (Department) follows in processing records under the Freedom of Information Act. The revisions clarify and update procedures for requesting information from the Department and procedures that the Department follows in responding to requests from the public,” according to the summary on the Federal Register.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, The Wilderness Society, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Animal Welfare Institute, the Center for Urban and Environmental Reform, and the Sierra Club submitted comments on the rulemaking on their behalf and the behalf of 135 groups.

The letter states that the Department of Interior “proposed significant, expansive, and novel revisions to its FOIA regulations … the Proposed Rule, if adopted, would severely undermine government transparency, violate FOIA, and limit important public rights guaranteed by statute.”

Concerns raised in the letter include but are not limited to the following:

  • The senders felt the 30‐day public comment period on a proposed rule of that complexity is inadequate.
  • The partial government shutdown during most of the public comment period that began at midnight Dec. 21, 2018, had limited public involvement as a result.
  • The proposed rule is part of a broader effort to enforce a culture of secrecy and to withhold or delay documents when possible at the Department of Interior.
  • And the revisions are unnecessary and unjustified.

Information provided on the Federal Register states that the Department published a final rule in 2012 that updated and replaced the Department’s previous Freedom of Information Act regulations. In early 2016, the Department updated the final rule to authorize the Office of Inspector General to process its own FOIA appeals. Later that year, the Department updated the final rule again in response to the mid-year enactment of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.

While the information on the Federal Register states that exponential increases in requests and litigation have made regulation updates a priority, the comment letter from the almost 150 organization responded, that “The increased volume of requests, the challenges faced by DOI in responding to them, and the increased volume of litigation noted in the preamble to the Proposed Rule are all attributable to DOI’s own actions and policies.”

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The story was compiled by staff members of Coastal Review Online.