Public Information

Why You Should Read this Chapter: Every citizen science project has limited resources (e.g., limited time, finances, volunteer involvement, etc.).  You will increase the efficiency of your project by taking time to examine information that already exists (i.e., “information collection”).  This chapter provides suggestions as to what information, if publicly available, might be of use to your project.  In particular, this chapter focuses on the collection of information related to pollutants and pollutant sources.  Resources are provided to aid in your search for this information.  Because all citizen science projects should involve this type of “information collection,” we anticipate that this chapter will be useful to all citizen science projects, whether just beginning or ongoing.

Information collection serves various purposes.  It informs and directs the design of your project in both technical and legal ways.  It also helps assure that your efforts are not redundant, as there may already be useful information in the public domain.  It may lead you to other individuals who are monitoring the problem that you have identified.  Here, we provide examples of information that may be worth collecting.  Importantly, if you feel unable to collect this information, we recommend that you seek out expertise in your community.  High school teachers, university professors, scientists, engineers, lawyers, and many other individuals in your community are likely willing and able to help.

Making Connections Between Chapters:  In Chapter 1, you identified your project’s focus and used that focus to identify a site of interest to you (e.g., a natural resource or a pollutant source) and to determine which pollutant or combination of pollutants will be examined during your project.  In Chapter 2, you identified how you hope to use the information that you collect or generate during your project and the type of quality standards that might apply.

This chapter’s focus is “information collection,” gathering and analyzing information that is already in the public domain.  In some instances, the process of information collection alone will provide you with the tools you need to meet your goals.  However, many projects will need to supplement the process of information collection with information generation, which is discussed in Chapter 4 and Chapter 5.

Collecting Available Information Concerning a Pollutant

A large amount of information concerning specific pollutants is already available in the public domain.  Spending time upfront to research your pollutant(s) of interest will help to assure that you get the most out of your efforts and could also help shield you from potential health risks. We recommend that you begin your research by addressing the following technical and legal questions:

Technical Questions Related to Determining the Identity of a Pollutant: Is the pollutant visible, and if so, what does it look like?  Can the pollutant be sensed in other ways, such as smell?  What health risks are associated with the pollutant?  How are potential health risks manifested (e.g., vomiting, dizziness, skin rash, etc.)?  What information is available on the pollutant’s material safety data sheet ("MSDS") (e.g., health effects, first aid measures, flammability and explosiveness, proper storage and disposal, physical properties, toxicity, and necessary protective equipment)?

Technical Questions Related to Determining the Source of a Pollutant: What sources are typically associated with the pollutant (e.g., natural sources or human sources such as industrial facilities, landfills, sewage treatment plants, mining operations, etc.)? What is the pollutant’s Chemical Abstracts Service ("CAS") number (a unique chemical identifier that can help you locate sources of a pollutant and any relevant characteristics)?

Technical Questions Related to Collecting, Handling, or Storing Samples: What is the stability of the pollutant in the air, water, or soil?  Is the pollutant soluble in water?  What instruments or methodologies can be used to measure the amount of the pollutant in air, water, or soil?  What is the lowest amount of pollutant that is instrumentally or methodologically detectable (e.g., its detection limit)?  What are the baseline/background levels of the pollutant (e.g., in some contexts pollutants are ubiquitous, and so detecting a pollution problem involves showing that the level of the pollutant is higher than previously recorded)? What are appropriate safety measures for the handling of the pollutant?

Legal Questions: Is the pollutant regulated by a federal or state agency (e.g, does a state or federal agency have jurisdiction over the pollutant)?  If so, what regulations are in place that are specific to the pollutant (e.g., permissible or reportable quantities)?

Various resources exist that can be of aid in answering these or other related questions.  Substantial technical and legal information can be found online; however, care should be taken to assure the quality of the references that you rely upon.  Generally, peer-reviewed medical or scientific articles are a very good resource to gain technical knowledge; these articles can be found by searching online with Google Scholar (https://scholar.google.com/) or in various public databases (e.g., Web of Science, PubMed, MedlinePlus, etc.) that might be available through a public library. Federal and state agency websites, such as epa.gov, also contain reliable information.  For example, the Substance Registry Services ("SRS") is the EPA's “central system for information about substances that are tracked or regulated by EPA or other sources.  It is the authoritative resource for basic information about chemicals, biological organisms, and other substances of interest to EPA and its state and tribal partners.”[1]  The EPA website also provides links to state health and environmental agencies that play a role in monitoring pollutants.[2] Finally, federal and state regulations contain information on how pollutants are monitored.  These regulations may be very relevant to your project.  For example, in many instances regulations will specify pollution quantities, which if exceeded, must be reported to a federal or state agency.  Various federal regulations that may be relevant to your project are listed in Appendix 3.  For many facilities, reporting requirements will also be contained in a permit, a topic discussed in the next section.

Collecting Available Information Concerning a Pollutant Source

A large amount of information concerning specific pollutant sources is also already available in the public domain.  Investing time in researching the pollutant source will help to fine tune your project design and will help you avoid wasting time on the wrong potential pollutant source.  For example, since news coverage and public records differ based on the individual pollutant source, it is crucial to start your research with the correct one.  Identifying the correct pollutant source will allow you to conduct searches to obtain further information more easily.

Here, we recommend that you begin your research by addressing the following questions: Are there any media reports that involve the pollutant source?  Are third-party monitoring records available?  Is this source monitored by a federal or state agency (i.e., does a state or federal agency have jurisdiction over this source) or is the source responsible for self-monitoring and reporting?

A good place to begin researching a pollutant source is by reviewing public media releases that might implicate the pollutant source with an environmental concern. You should also seek out publicly available permits and monitoring records (e.g., generated by the source, a third party, and/or a government agency).[3]   Additional public records may include prior inspections of the site of interest, prior compliance records, or reports submitted to government agencies by the site of interest.  Appendix 4 lists several resources provided by the EPA.  Various state agencies also provide similar resources.

Additional information can be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request.  FOIA requires federal agencies to disclose any records requested by the public unless they fall into one of nine exemptions.[4]  These exemptions include information that bears on national security and personal privacy, among other concerns.[5]  Before making a FOIA request, you can conduct a search of information already made available by federal agencies at FOIAonline.gov and in their FOIA libraries to see if the information you seek has already been released.[6]  If the information you are searching for has not been released by an agency, you can also search online to see whether third parties (e.g., a nonprofit organization, news organization, etc.) have released relevant materials obtained through FOIA.  If that fails, then you may want to consider filing your own FOIA request.

Submitting a FOIA request does not involve any special forms and does not require any kind of legal expertise.  You can simply write a letter to the agency most likely to possess those records, detailing the records you seek with reasonable particularity.[7]  Generally, the more specific your request is, the better; broader requests take considerably longer to process and are more likely to yield irrelevant results.[8]  Additionally, some agencies require individuals to submit a fee to cover the cost of record retrieval.[9]  Broader requests, which tend to require more work on the agency’s part, are likely to be more expensive.  For a sample FOIA request letter you can fill out with your specific details, visit the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s website.[10]  Once you have written your request, you can locate the relevant agency’s FOIA request contact information.[11]

If the information you seek is more likely to be held by a state agency, then you will want to acquaint yourself with your state’s public records law and see if you can make a similar document request.  Every state has its own public records laws pertaining to public requests for information from state agencies.  While some are very similar to FOIA, others are broader or more limited.  To learn more about your state’s public records law, you can access the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s database of state public records laws.[12]  This helpful resource also includes sample FOI request letters by state.[13]  As with federal FOIA requests, you will want to make sure that your state records request is as detailed and specific as possible.  If you encounter any difficulty in securing a response to your state FOI request, the Freedom of Information Coalition and its affiliates have offices in every state that you can contact for advice and assistance.[14]

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[1] See Environmental Protection Agency, About Substance Registry Services (SRS), https://iaspub.epa.gov/sor_internet/registry/substreg/home/overview/home.do (last visited Feb. 7, 2019).

[2] See Environmental Protection Agency, Health and Environmental Agencies of U.S. States and Territories, https://www.epa.gov/home/health-and-environmental-agencies-us-states-and... (last visited Feb. 7, 2019).

[3] Resources that will help you locate permitting and compliance information for pollutant sources include EPA’s Envirofacts, TRI Program, and Enforcement and Compliance History Online (“ECHO”). See Environmental Protection Agency, Envirofacts, https://www3.epa.gov/enviro/ (last visited Feb. 7, 2019); Environmental Protection Agency, Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Program, https://www.epa.gov/toxics-release-inventory-tri-program (last visited Feb. 7, 2019); Environmental Protection Agency, Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO), https://echo.epa.gov/ (last visited Feb. 7, 2019).

[4] 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A), (b); see also U.S. Department of Justice, What is FOIA?, FOIA.Gov, https://www.foia.gov/about.html (last visited Feb. 7, 2019).

[5] See 5 U.S.C. § 552(b).

[6] FOIAonline.gov, https://www.foiaonline.gov/foiaonline/action/public/home (last visited Feb. 7, 2019). Agencies, and sometimes even their individual component offices, have FOIA libraries. These libraries result from FOIA’s proactive disclosure requirements, which direct agencies to publicly release commonly requested records. See 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(2); U.S. Department of Justice, Proactive Disclosures, in Department of Justice Guide to the Freedom of Information Act, at 9‑22 (2009). For example, EPA has a consolidated FOIA library online. See Environmental Protection Agency, National Online FOIA Library, https://www.epa.gov/foia/national-online-foia-library (last visited Feb. 7, 2019).

[7] 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(3)(A)(i).

[8] For a more detailed idea of what information to include in your FOIA request, you should look at the agency’s FOIA regulations. For example, EPA’s regulations provide as follows: “Your request should reasonably describe the records you are seeking in a way that will permit EPA employees to identify and locate them.  Whenever possible, your request should include specific information about each record sought, such as the date, title or name, author, recipient, and subject matter.  If known, you should include any file designations or descriptions for the records that you want. The more specific you are about the records or type of records that you want, the more likely EPA will be able to identify and locate records responsive to your request.”  40 C.F.R. § 2.102(c) (emphasis added).

[9] That being said, there are certain provisions that limit fee collection on FOIA requests.  The reasonableness of such fees may vary according to whether the information sought is to be used for commercial or noncommercial purposes, with the latter meriting a lesser fee. 5 U.S.C.  552(a)(4)(A)(ii).  Fees may also be waived if the information sought is in the public interest. 5 U.S.C. §552(a)(4)(A)(iii).  Furthermore, the government agency waives its right to collect fees if it does not respond to the request within the statutorily mandated time limits. 5 U.S.C. §552(a)(4)(A)(viii).

[10] National Freedom of Information Coalition, Sample FOIA Request Letters, http://www.nfoic.org/sample-foia-request-letters#foireq (last visited Feb. 7, 2019).

[11] In order to make the FOIA process more efficient, you should try to determine the addressee of the FOIA request based on the topic and location of interest. For example, if you live in Texas and want to learn about the unauthorized release of a pollutant in your community, you should address your FOIA request to EPA Region 6’s FOIA Office. See Environmental Protection Agency, The FOIA Request Process, https://www.epa.gov/foia/foia-request-process (last visited Feb. 7, 2019); see also Environmental Protection Agency, Contact Us about the Freedom of Information Act and FOIA Requests, https://www.epa.gov/foia/forms/contact-us-about-freedom-information-act-... (last visited Feb. 7, 2019). If you are concerned with a mining permit in Alaska, on the other hand, you should submit your FOIA request to the Department of the Interior Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s Western Region Office. OSMRE Freedom of Information Act Program, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation & Enforcement, https://www.osmre.gov/lrg/FOIA.shtm (last visited Feb. 7, 2019). An index of government agencies and departments is available on USA.gov. See A-Z Index of U.S. Government Departments and Agencies, USA.gov, https://www.usa.gov/federal-agencies/a (last visited Feb. 7, 2019). [

12] National Freedom of Information Coalition, State Freedom of Information Laws, http://www.nfoic.org/state-freedom-of-information-laws (last visited Feb. 7, 2019).

[13] National Freedom of Information Coalition, State Sample FOI Request Letters, http://www.nfoic.org/state-sample-foia-request-letters (last visited Feb. 7, 2019).

[14] National Freedom of Information Coalition, NFOIC State and Regional Affiliates, http://www.nfoic.org/members (last visited Feb. 7, 2019).

 

 

Discussion

Please note that this discussion is not moderated by the Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic.