A recent decision in federal court ruled that Department of Energy (DOE) demonstrated a pattern and practice of unlawfully withholding records from Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a Santa Fe based, non-government organization.
Richard Mietz, attorney for Nuclear Watch, commented, "This decision by the Court is … a significant, precedent-setting victory for any citizen or public interest group who otherwise would be forced to endure lengthy and unlawful delays in obtaining government documents."
This ruling is a result of an action brought under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) action against the Albuquerque Service Center of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a sub-agency within the United States Department of Energy. FOIA generally provides that all agencies of the U.S. Government are required to disclose most records upon receiving a written request for them. Once a citizen has requested documents, the governmental agency has 20 days to comply or notify the party making the request of a denial.
Nuclear Watch filed their complaint in March of 2006 in order to compel DOE/NNSA to produce records sought in FOIA requests beginning in December 2004. Those requests were for copies of the Ten Year Comprehensive Site Plans prepared for LANL for fiscal years 2003 through 2006. These documents are the foundation for strategic planning, incorporating both technical requirements and budget planning. Nuclear Watch received its first response more than 17 months after the initial FOIA request.
United States District Judge, Bruce D. Black, stated, "This makes a mockery of the 20-day target set by the Act and violates congressional intent."
DOE claimed that it did not demonstrate a pattern and practice of unlawfully withholding agency records. It based this argument on the premise that a procedure inevitably resulting in lengthy delay must be written before it can be condemned as a "pattern or practice."
In unusually strong language, the Court disagreed and called the DOE argument, “contrary to both logic and law. A pattern of delays which violates FOIA can be found outside published guidelines based on a bureaucratic practice of timeless indecision or paper shuffling even when such practices are not officially codified into regulations."
In addition, Judge Black ruled that further court hearings will be held on "remedies for this violation of FOIA." Which means that a future decision will rule on how the NNSA can improve and hasten their response to requests for information.
Jay Coghlan, Nuclear Watch Executive Director, commented, "Our bottom line is that we want what the law says. We demand that NNSA determine within 20 days whether documents will be released, followed by their actual release within days or weeks. We won't tolerate the months and years of delay and suppression of information that NNSA is guilty of. We look forward to real remedies that require prompt disclosure of information under citizens' right-to-know."
For more information visit the Nuclear Watch New Mexico website: nukewatch.org.