Mining to resolve a dispute, OGIS gets the shaft

CNN’s Anderson Cooper talks a lot about transparency.  He focused on transparency troubles while covering the gulf oil spill.

Watching the Chilean mine rescue unfold, on October 12th Cooper noted that the Chilean government’s rescue operations have been more transparent than similar responses to mining disasters in the U.S.

If the way the Labor Department ignored the FOIA mediator’s office is any gauge, he may have a point.

For years, Mine Safety and Health News editor Ellen Smith has been working for the disclosure of a key report about a spill 25 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in which a toxic blend of coal mine slurry pierced its confines and contaminated 100 miles of rivers and properties in Kentucky and West Virginia, according to a story by my colleagues here at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Stymied, Smith took her case to the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the independent office within the federal government that mediates FOIA disputes.  Here’s where it gets interesting:

Due to a lack of communication and unreturned phone calls from the Labor Department, [OGIS] was unable to assist Smith, according to an Aug. 17 letter it sent to Smith.

Nothing in the FOIA law compels an agency to cooperate with OGIS, but it sure would be nice if each agency did so on their own accord. The OGIS Case Logs show one request matching the description of Smith’s request.  That request came to OGIS in November 2009, and the Labor Department agreed in January 2010 to review its earlier redactions, but apparently Labor failed to talk with OGIS and ultimately OGIS closed the case in August without helping the requester.

If OGIS can’t get an agency to return its phone calls, how can the public expect an adequate response to FOIA requests?  The answer is, the public can’t.   The White  House should direct departments and agencies to cooperate with OGIS.  It’s unclear how prevalent a problem this is, but be assured we will follow up.

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