In 2017, the EPA received a record number of open-records cases.

For Scott Pruitt’s EPA, a Flood of FOIA Requests

In response to heightened secrecy under the administration of President Donald Trump, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is facing a flood of lawsuits seeking access to information about decisions made by its administrator, Scott Pruitt.

In 2017, the EPA received a record number of open-records cases.

Visual: Michael Prince/Getty

According to a review of data collected through an initiative at Syracuse University, 46 lawsuits were filed against the agency in 2017 — the highest on record according to numbers going back to 1992. Environmentalists, open government advocates, and others argue that the agency is taking too long to fill requests related to Pruitt’s decisions on Obama-era climate and water rules, as well as requests related to his schedule and travel records.

The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, is a law that gives the public the right to request access to information from any federal agency. Numerous exemptions relating to national security and personal privacy may apply, but in any case, an agency must generally provide a response to a FOIA request within 20 days. If requests go unanswered for more than a month or are denied, those filing for the information can sue.

An EPA spokeswoman told Politico that the agency is dealing with a large backlog from previous administrations, in addition to the new requests. While critics acknowledge that the FOIA process has always had issues, requests made to Pruitt’s office has been particularly slow. Of the 1,181 submissions made last year, just 17 percent have been completed.

Last month, environmental activists at the Sierra Club sued the agency over failing to provide records about the changes made to FOIA policies under the new administration. Or as a Washington Post headline put it: “Sierra Club sues EPA over FOIA request on FOIA requests.”

Also in the news:

• One of the most ambitious examinations of gun research to date was published Friday, and the news is … equivocal: Science, it turns out, has very little that’s conclusive to say about the effectiveness of various firearms policies overall. The nonprofit RAND Corporation reportedly spent two years and roughly $1 million looking at thousands of studies in the hunt for clear, measurable effects on society — things like a reduction in violent crime, suicides, or homicides, fewer police shootings, impacts on hunting, decreases in mass shootings, and the like. In all, they found just 63 studies that found any causal relationship between specific gun policies and outcomes on the ground. The persistent and, critics argue, politically motivated lack of federal funding for gun research is likely one reason why which policies work, and which don’t, remain largely a mystery. (NPR)

• Boston University this week denied a termination appeal from the well-known Antarctic geologist David Marchant, refusing to restore him to his long-time faculty position. BU moved to fire Marchant late last year after an investigation into sexual harassment charges brought by former graduate students, who claimed that he had called them demeaning names, such as slut, thrown rocks at one student, and humiliated them in front of their colleagues. Although the charges were some two decades old, the students came forward during a recent wave of #MeToo reports in academia. Their story was outlined in a detailed report by the journal Science in October. The reporting launched a university inquiry which found that the claims were verifiable and that they rose to the level of a firing offense. Marchant, who has denied the accusations, has other appeal options open, according to the university, but at this point will remain on paid administrative leave until the case is concluded. (Science).

• To the delight of many researchers, the Canadian government revealed its 2018 budget this week, outlining a commitment of over $3 billion of new funding for a range of science programs over the next the five years. A significant portion of the cash — the most invested in basic science research in the country’s history — will be distributed among three granting councils, spanning natural sciences and engineering, health research, and social sciences and humanities. Critics, however, say the budget leaves questions unanswered and avoids important financial commitments to decarbonization and climate change initiatives. (Nature)

• The latest U.S. government report on Arctic temperatures reveals highly irregular, record-breaking warmth across the region. At two disparate research stations in Greenland, temperatures are averaging far above normal for what is typically a long, deep freeze period. At Cape Morris Jesup, the country’s northernmost point, weekend temperatures were more than 50 degrees higher than normal for this time of year. And while sea ice in the Arctic Ocean should be expanding, satellite imagery reveals that its formation has stopped more than a month early, which would mark the fourth straight year of Arctic sea-ice record lows. (The Atlantic)

• Using a radio-wave detector about the size and shape of a card table, scientists at MIT and Arizona State University have made a startling discovery about the earliest days of the universe, just 180 million years after the Big Bang. The detector — placed in a remote desert in western Australia to minimize interference from human-generated radio signals — picked up an unexpectedly large dip in the intensity of cosmic radiation at that time. This suggests that more energy than astronomers had thought was being absorbed by the clouds of hydrogen that pervaded the cosmos (and coalesced into the first faint stars). It suggests that the hydrogen was much colder than had been predicted. And to some astronomers, it suggests that the hydrogen was losing heat to dark matter, the unseen, mysterious substance that makes up much of the universe. (The GuardianThe New York Times)

• And finally: A U.S. judge in California blocked the state on Monday from requiring that the popular weed killer Roundup be labelled as a human carcinogen. The judge’s action was in response to a move last year to list the product’s main ingredient, glyphosate, as a cancer-causing chemical. While France’s International Agency for Research on Cancer designated glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen last year, the World Health Organization and the United Nations concluded in 2016 that the pesticide is unlikely to pose a cancer risk to humans through their diets. (Associated Press)