Conservative group sues EPA over its ‘IRS-like’ tactics

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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A conservative environmental law group is suing the Environmental Protection Agency over its alleged “IRS-like” tactics, including stone-walling federal records requests and imposing fees on conservative groups that sought government records.

The Energy & Environment Legal Institute is trying to force the EPA to release records previously denied under a Freedom of Information Act request looking for agency records regarding clean water rules as they relate to mining operations. E&E Legal argues that such information is crucial to the public understanding issues surrounding the EPA’s “War on Coal.”

In this case, E&E Legal was looking for records regarding the EPA’s veto of an already-granted permit to a coal mine in Logan County, W.V. The EPA vetoed the permit to save the mayfly, an insect that the agency says is harmed by surface mining.

“EPA’s behavior is a clear parallel to the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups,” E&E Legal counsel Chris Horner told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “Both impose financial hurdles in the way of groups they disapprove of, draining resources from those they see as threats and impeding the groups from pursuing their mission.”

“That we have learned that the Office of Inspector General is preparing to yet again cover for these abuses only adds to the similarities,” Horner added.

E&E Legal says the EPA has hindered six attempts by the group to get government records related to the EPA mayfly decision. The EPA has refused to waive FOIA-related fees to the group, saying that E&E “failed to express an intention to broadly disseminate” the requested information. E&E says it has gone so far as to insert a picture of a “chalkboard” in a FOIA request with the phrase “We intend to broadly disseminate responsive information” written ten times. The EPA even denied this request.

“The [FOIA] request is being blocked by the latest in a pattern of behavior by the agency directed at plaintiffs, improperly denying the fee waiver provided by statute for non-profit groups that broadly disseminate public information of significant public interest,” Horner writes in his court filing.

“They are of significant public interest due to the ongoing controversy surrounding the EPA’s “War on Coal,’” Horner adds. “Particularly, the EPA’s actions concerning mining activity through the regulation of selenium for its possible impact on insect populations are ongoing matters of public controversy.”

“Specifically, EPA denies fee waiver requests for groups that generally oppose EPA’s regulatory agenda while routinely granting them for ideologically aligned groups with which it works closely on shared agenda, which is the subject of an ongoing EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) inquiry,” Horner continues.

Last year, Horner got the EPA’s attention by highlighting the fact that the agency was making it harder for conservative groups to get government records. EPA records obtained by Horner last April showed that the agency had rejected or ignored 21 out of 26 fee waiver requests from conservative groups during 2012 and part of 2013 — an 81 percent rejection rate.

At the same time, however, the EPA granted fee waiver requests for 75 out of 82 FOIA requests from environmental groups that typically support agency regulatory efforts — a 92 percent success rate.

The EPA was also sued last year by 12 states that had their FOIA fee waiver requests denied. These states were looking for EPA records over so-called “sue and settle” lawsuits from environmental groups. Such lawsuits allow green groups to force the agency to issue new regulations without having to engage with industry.

“This appears to be a blatant strategy by the EPA to go around the process and bend the rules to create environmental regulations that have failed in Congress,” Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said in a statement last year. “As part of our investigation into the pervasiveness of this tactic, we requested documents that the EPA has refused to produce. If the EPA is making backdoor deals with environmental groups to push their agenda on the American people while bypassing the states and Congress, we need to know.”

The EPA’s FOIA scandal came out in the wake of the Internal Revenue Service admitting it was targeting conservative nonprofits through audits. Republicans were quick to tie the EPA’s FOIA troubles to the IRS and other transparency issues being had by the Obama administration.

Republicans used the EPA FOIA scandal to highlight transparency problems within the Obama administration, and even challenged EPA chief Gina McCarthy on the transparency issue during her Senate confirmation hearings.

“We know the Obama EPA has completely mismanaged FOIA, but granting fee waivers for their friends in the far-left environmental community, while simultaneously blocking conservative leaning groups from gaining access to information; is really no different than the IRS disaster,” Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter said last year.

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