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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