Reading Room

The Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) and Tri-Valley CAREs: 2010 Update

Tri-Valley CAREs (TVC) uses the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to monitor activities at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and the U.S. nuclear weapons complex more broadly. FOIA requires agencies to produce documents in their possession related to a request to any member of the public or organization unless the information is exempt from disclosure.

This year, TVC's FOIA Officer (and board member), Iti Talwar, has sent numerous FOIA requests to the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency within the Department of Energy (DOE) in charge of the nuclear weapons complex, requesting documents concerning various ongoing activities at LLNL. We have requested documents concerning: 1) a 2009 audit of the Chronic Beryllium Disease Prevention Program at LLNL; 2) a recent beryllium industrial hygiene exposure at LLNL; 3) an audit of the financial cost transfers at LLNL; and 4) LLNL's Institutional Bio-safety Committee minutes at LLNL.

By obtaining these records, Tri-Valley CAREs could benefit the public and contribute to the public's understanding of what is occurring at the Lab. For example, taxpaying citizens and elected officials have the right to know if the Lab goes over budget, misappropriates funds, and violates accounting standards. Workers and neighbors have the right to know details of contamination and the risks of radiation and toxics exposure. Further, we need to address the safety issues for Lab employees in order to ensure that the Lab implements more stringent safety measures to prevent further on-the-job exposures. Additionally, by publicizing deficiencies and mismanagements occurring at LLNL, Tri-Valley CAREs creates the momentum necessary for remedying these problems.

So far with respect to these four recent FOIA requests, no responsive documents have been produced. TVC will resort to legal action if disclosure is not forthcoming within the statutory time requirement.

FOIA Litigation:

FOIA requires the agency to make a determination within twenty (20) business days after the date of receipt of the request whether to comply with such request. If the agency decides to withhold the documents, FOIA allows the requesting party to appeal the agency's adverse determination.

Once a requesting party has exhausted all of its administrative remedies (such as sending notices of statutory violation if the agency fails to respond within the time limitations set forth by the Act or appealing the agency's refusal to comply with the request) and the agency continues to improperly withhold documents, FOIA allows the requesting party to resort to litigation at that point.

In addition, responsive documents are frequently produced with major "redactions" (areas of the text blacked out) made pursuant to an exemption to disclosure. It is possible to challenge a redaction if we believe it has been improperly omitted. TVC's legal team has successfully appealed redaction on many occasions.

In the past, TVC's legal team has engaged in litigation when the agencies failed to comply with our request. Each time, TVC has been successful in obtaining documents from the agency. Most recently, on December 2, 2008, TVC filed a complaint against DOE alleging violation of FOIA with respect to six requests for production of documents made by TVC. As of the date of the complaint, DOE had failed to respond to any of TVC�s request in a timely manner and had failed to provide any responsive documents. Since the filing of the suit in December, however, TVC has received responsive documents to all of its six requests. Presently, we are engaged with tentative settlement negotiations with the DOE regarding TVC attorney fees for its efforts in obtaining these documents.

The Open Government Directive:

The Obama Administration has made government transparency a cornerstone policy. On January 21, 2009, Obama instructed the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to issue an 'Open Government Directive.' This directive requires every federal agency, including the DOE to take actions to make information more publicly accessible, by making the data available online.

The DOE, in keeping with the directive, has launched its own Open Government website and made certain data publicly accessible. Unfortunately, much of the data on the website is indecipherable. The website was difficult to navigate and most of the data is lacking the kinds of information usable to public stake-holders. TVC expects there to be an additional round of public input into the Open Government efforts of the DOE that would expand the possibilities of making the websites more publicly accessible.

Click here to read TVC's request for information regarding industrial hygiene exposures at LLNL.

Click here to read TVC's request for information regarding audits of financial cost transfer practices at LLNL.

Click here to read TVC's request for information regarding LLNL's Open Campus Plan.

Click here to read TVC's request for information regarding recent beryllium exposures and activities at LLNL.

Click here to read TVC's request for meeting minutes and andy other information pertaining to recent Institutional Biosafety Committee Meetings at LLNL.