Quest for EPA documents reveal deliberate misclassification by agency staff


For the past four years, as executive director of Citizen Action New Mexico, Dave McCoy has been hounding the local and federal government for documents.

McCoy alleges that Sandia National Laboratory’s Mixed Waste Landfill monitoring wells are mismanaged by the New Mexico Environment Department, and that the public water supply is in danger of contamination.

He requested documents from an EPA regional office that assessed the state’s oversight of the landfill and after getting little information, complained to the EPA’s inspector general. The watchdog concluded in an April report that some officials deliberately failed to document management problems with the monitoring wells and wrongly classified some documents, as confidential to withhold information from McCoy’s advocacy group.

“The Region 6 Project Engineer for Sandia stated that her section discontinued record keeping in favor of undocumented phone calls and conversations with NMED to prevent the production of documents,” the inspector general’s report said, referring to the New Mexico Environmental Department. “During an interview with the OIG, the Project Engineer for Sandia informed us that her section had discontinued record keeping of phone calls and discussions between the Region and NMED because of CANM’s (Citizen Action New Mexico) requests for documentation regarding the MWL, including extensive requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.”

The EPA’s Region 6 office denies any wrongdoing.

In a response included with the inspector general’s report, the regional officials said “marking documents ‘confidential’ is a common practice ‘throughout the agency’ for many (unclassified) documents.” The officials also wrote: “… these charges are simply not true. Documents were not misclassified and details of EPA’s evaluation were not withheld from the public.”

The inspector general’s report — which cost almost $273,000 to produce — recommended that the EPA regional administrator “evaluate the extent to which the Region has not recorded oversight information, or misclassified information, to determine the scope of administrative action or training necessary to remedy the situation.” EPA’s recommendations are unresolved, according to the report.

The report also scolded the EPA regional office, saying agency policy requires staff to make decision-making processes open and accessible to interested groups. “This policy also instructs EPA to approach all decision making with a bias in favor of significant and meaningful public involvement. The Region’s actions do not do that,” the inspector general wrote.

But McCoy isn’t thrilled about the inspector general’s report. “They limited the scope of the investigation to the point that it didn’t address what we wanted to be addressed,” he said in a recent interview. He said he is not stopping his quest to obtain government documents about the monitoring wells. He just won a FOIA appeal and obtained other EPA documents that may have useful data. “We’ve got 13,000 pages of documents hidden for 10 years about every lab and military site across the state of New Mexico,” he said.

UPDATE — 6/14/10: In an email response to the Center, a spokesman for EPA Region 6 said the office “respectfully but fundamentally disagrees” with the Inspector General’s report. “The Region has followed established information release procedures under the Freedom of Information Act which were upheld by the Office of General Counsel and long-standing oversight protocols in partnership with State regulators” said EPA Senior Legal Counsel Bruce Jones.


What: 2007 EPA Region 6 assessment of monitoring wells management
EPA Region 6
Availability: In dispute
Format: Paper document
Usability: n/a

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The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.