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Judge orders release of thousands of docs between EPA officials, industry groups

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to expedite the production of thousands of pages of emails and calendars for Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Office of Air and Radiation head Bill Wehrum and 23 other agency employees in response to a public records lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club.

In an order signed Dec. 26, 2018, Judge Elizabeth Laporte of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California gave the agency 10 months to produce approximately 20,000 pages of material that the environmental group said could expose "conflicts of interest" based on top officials' "strong ties to regulated industries."

Noting that the EPA's proposed production plan would take over four years to complete, Laporte said that is "a very far cry from making them 'promptly available'" as required by the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

Wheeler previously represented private coal company Murray Energy as a lobbyist, and Wehrum worked as an attorney representing the industry-backed Utility Air Regulatory Group before he was tapped for his current position. The two officials have played a central role in guiding the Trump administration's efforts to roll back a slew of Obama-era energy policies, including a proposal to repeal and replace the Clean Power Plan that would ease regulations on coal-fired power plants.

Previous Sierra Club records requests filed under FOIA led to revelations that helped prompt former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to resign in May 2018 amid a cloud of ethics investigations. With President Donald Trump recently indicating that he plans to tap Wheeler to officially lead the agency, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune in a Jan. 7 news release said the confirmation process should not proceed until the EPA produces records related to the Trump administration's deregulatory agenda. "The Senate should not act on Wheeler's expected nomination until we know exactly what he is up to behind the scenes," Brune said.

The Sierra Club also is seeking emails and calendars for political appointees with ties to the American Chemical Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Ohio Coal Association, BP America Inc. and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who is known for being skeptical of climate change science.

In total, the group submitted three records requests in July 2017 and one in May 2018, but the EPA failed to provide "responsive determinations" before the relevant statutory deadlines, according the complaint filed with the district court on June 11, 2018. Citing an "unprecedented" increase in FOIA requests with the Office of the Administrator, the EPA responded to the first three record requests with estimated completion dates while inviting the Sierra Club to narrow its requests, according to court documents.

The Sierra Club eventually filed a motion for summary judgment in November 2018 seeking a court order compelling the EPA to "promptly" release the requested records, arguing that FOIA "does not allow agencies to keep ... requests bottled up for months or years on end while avoiding any judicial oversight."

Under the order, Laporte directed the EPA "devote sufficient resources to FOIA" to producing the documents over the 10-month schedule.

The case is Sierra Club v. Environmental Protection Agency (No. 18-cv-03472-EDL).