Government Accountability

Water Is Life DC Climate March 2017.jpg

Citizen advocacy is essential to the function and integrity of all three branches of government in the United States. In addition to regularly serving as a plaintiff in public interest lawsuits, Our Children’s Earth consistently acts as a government watchdog, ensuring that agencies tasked with protecting the environment and public health do their jobs, and insisting that harmful laws and rules are reconsidered and removed as needed.

In this way, we engage with all three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. Some of our government accountability work is “administrative advocacy,” i.e. pushing agencies to properly regulate and prevent pollution, protect public health, and protect threatened species.

Other government accountability work is achieved via lawsuits aimed at enforcing public disclosure requirements at the federal, state, and local levels to maximize governmental transparency. We have developed expertise and a strong track record in the Freedom of Information Act as well as various state laws for public disclosure of governmental records and information relevant to environmental issues.

Throughout all this work, our goal is to ensure that governmental entities are as transparent as possible to the public, and fulfilling their mandates to serve communities rather than special interests.

OCE’s long record of anti-corruption and pro-transparency work reflects our commitment to educate communities about environmental issues, to investigate noncompliant and negligent polluters, to enforce environmental laws and regulations, and to encourage reform at the highest levels of government. From its start, OCE has built a strong reputation as highly effective in forcing governmental agencies to disclose key information about how they manage our natural resources. We hold publicly-funded agencies and governmental staff accountable to ensure that the public interest remains a central component of our democracy.

We fight for full enforcement of public disclosure laws, including the provision that records be provided without charge when disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest. In the most recent development in our multi-year legal campaign to get documents from the National Marine Fisheries Service, we beat back the federal government’s attempts to sharply limit when public interest groups could be reimbursed for the time they spend trying to get information from agencies. For more insight into how we have obtained information from agencies and prevailed in our appeals for fee waivers, or to share your experiences seeking documents from state and federal agencies, please contact us.

See below for summaries of OCE’s key cases and actions aimed at ensuring governmental transparency and accountability at all levels. A full list of OCE’s cases can be found here.

PUBLIC DISCLOSURE OF "SIPs" -- THE BACKBONE OF THE CLEAN AIR ACT

PUBLIC DISCLOSURE OF "SIPs" -- THE BACKBONE OF THE CLEAN AIR ACT

Between 2001 and 2004, OCE was again represented by the Environmental Law & Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University School of Law in litigation aimed at requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to publish information related to regional efforts to meet national air quality standards. The Clean Air Act requires states to develop plans to meet air quality standards, known as State Implementation Plans or “SIPs,” which are submitted to EPA for approval. SIPs describe how states and local air districts will reduce emissions to come into compliance with the Clean Air Act. Each SIP is comprised of many rules which lay out emissions requirements, and SIPs often contain other key elements as well, for example, specific studies on transportation patterns or other emissions-related issues. Previous to our litigation, SIPs were only available in hard-copy form at each regional EPA office. OCE entered agreements with EPA in September 2001 and April 2003 to require the text of each SIP to be placed online, as well as summaries, the federal register citation of EPA’s approval of the SIP, and any other applicable local or state rule number and citation. Publishing this information makes enforcement easier for EPA and public interest groups alike, clarifies which rules are in effect and which have been superseded, and perhaps most importantly, allows the public to understand and become involved in air quality protection in their regions.

SAN FRANCISCO AIR QUALITY DISTRICT "BACKLOG"

SAN FRANCISCO AIR QUALITY DISTRICT "BACKLOG"

In early 2001, OCE, represented by the Environmental Law & Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University School of Law, filed suit under the California Public Records Act to force the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) to release a backlog of approximately 1,200 “notices of violation” issued to Bay Area industries. BAAQMD agreed to settle the case and turned over the relevant public documents. This unprecedented action illustrated to the public that the Air District was failing to prosecute violators of air pollution laws and forced a significant sea change at BAAQMD. OCE shined a bright light on the BAAQMD’s longstanding inaction and inadequate protection of the public’s health.

20060402_waikiki_sewage.jpg

EPA DELAYING DISCLOSURES ABOUT SEWAGE DUMPS 

From 2007 until 2009, OCE led a formal effort to obtain documents from United States Environmental Protection Agency pertaining to the discharge of raw or partially-treated sewage from the City and County of Honolulu’s publicly-owned sewage collection and treatment facilities, including the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest wastewater treatment plant in Hawaii. OCE recognized that these facilities were seriously violating the Clean Water Act by regularly discharging raw and partially-treated sewage into the Pacific Ocean. We filed requests for public records to document the extent of this problem, and to learn more about any attempts to curtail sewage spills by the City and County of Honolulu. After failing to meet the deadline for responding to OCE’s FOIA, EPA indicated that it was “backlogged,” and eventually responded but withheld key documents. OCE filed a lawsuit in March, 2008 citing EPA’s wrongful withholding of public documents and EPA’s failure to provide OCE with reports in electronic format even though they were readily available. OCE subsequently settled this lawsuit with an agreement requiring EPA to release improperly withheld documents and provide them in electronic format, thus vindicating FOIA’s purposes of ensuring open government.

NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES SERVICE: SAN FRANCISQUITO CREEK STEELHEAD

NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES SERVICE: SAN FRANCISQUITO CREEK STEELHEAD

From 2014 until early 2016, OCE took action to obtain key information from federal agencies related to Stanford University’s 125-year old Searsville Dam and other campus water diversions, and the ongoing impacts of these diversions to habitat for threatened steelhead trout. Through multiple FOIA requests and related lawsuits, OCE obtained documents detailing the National Marine Fisheries Service’s past investigations of Stanford University as well as other agency input related to Stanford’s water infrastructure. Our lawsuits also revealed important details about the National Marine Fisheries Service’s internal operations as a publicly-funded agency; how they respond to public records requests, why there have been such extreme delays in our cases, and how the agency has attempted to comply with deadlines for public disclosure. After many months of delay, OCE prevailed. The National Marine Fisheries Service released key documents to us and cleared its longstanding “backlog” of FOIA requests. In February 2016, we also won our appeal for a fee waiver by demonstrating that this work was in the public interest.