MMS cuts red tape in document requests

The Minerals Management Service (MMS) has been overwhelmed with requests for information about the Gulf oil spill and is responding by eliminating fees, expediting requests, and posting responses on its website, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) noted on June 22.

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Ask, and you shall receive… sort of.

Three years and a fraction of the intended spending later, what a State Department official once called an “urgent” aid program with the potential for “an immediate and important impact in the fight against organized crime” (in Mexico’s war on drug cartels) was acknowledged by federal officials to have been hamstrung by bureaucratic inertia. Initiated in 2007 between then-President George W. Bush and newly-elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the “Merida Initiative” called for the U.S. to send $1.1 billion to Mexico between 2008 and 2010, but the persistence of drug-related violence has raised questions about how the plan is working — and public-records laws are answering them in an unflattering light.

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Our impact? Dispersants, spillcam & barrel counts

Back on May 19, we anticipated the public would demand more information from government agencies about the oil spill, so agencies should head off those FOIA requests and post material proactively. We went on to discuss three problems: The lack of information about the dispersant used, video of the spill site itself (the “spillcam”), and spill monitoring information.  To monitor the spill, the public focused on the size and locations of the plumes in the water and the rate that oil is gushing from the break in the well.

The next day, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), longtime champion of open government, called on agencies to disclose more about the oil dispersant, Corexit, and ensure the often mesmerizing spillcam was kept on.

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The McChrystal Fall-out: Biggest victim may be public

As reporters use Twitter to report that President Obama is accepting the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal, the biggest loser in the aftermath of the general’s poor judgment may be the American public.  Yahoo! News reporter Michael Calderone writes that the military is locking down troops from talking with reporters, as NBC’s Richard Engel says notes.

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FOIA helps fill in backstory to oil spill

While there are many angles and arguments to consider in evaluating and covering the recent oil spill and ensuing attempts at mitigation and clean-up, FOIA has been a vital tool in enabling journalists to connect government information with public analysis, enhancing our ability to understand both what has happened and what is happening. As the nation reacts to what may become the nation’s worst oil spill in history, we are pleased to see agencies releasing information in response to FOIA requests, as some of our new “FOIA Files” stories note.

For example, see:

  • #503: “Documents Show Early Worries About Safety of Rig” (May 29, New York Times) — Engineers and officials were skeptical of solutions chosen by BP as early as the middle of 2009, but a culture of cooperation between industry and federal overseers let each hope for the best instead of preparing for the worst.
  • #502: “Deepwater Horizon Inspections: MMS Skipped Monthly Inspections on Doomed Rig” (May 16, AP/Huffington Post) — The Minerals Management Service was not inspecting the Deepwater Horizon rig as often as their policy called for them to.
  • #501: “Renegade Refiner: OSHA Says BP Has “Systemic Safety Problem”” (May 16, Center for Public Integrity) — Lost in the shock of so much oil spewing into the mile-deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico is the fact that BP seems to have learned little about preventing employee deaths or preventing “natural” man-made disasters by complying with environmental or workplace-safety regulations since a fatal explosion five years ago at Anacortes, WA.

Plenty of reporters’ experiences with FOIA involve frustration, denial, and delay, putting a damper on stories whose value lies at least in part in their timeliness. And journalists have reported trouble accessing places and people to report the story.

Reporters are rightfully reluctant to put themselves into their stories, but there may be no better way to explain how transparency and accountability are being undermined. And how FOIA has been an effective tool to help keep the public informed of what the government — and BP — are up to.

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