OPINION

Louisiana weaponizing public records against its own citizens

In a highly unusual move, the state of Louisiana has filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency, seeking to enforce a Freedom of Information Act request.

Now, Louisiana has often sued the feds in recent years. But what makes this suit worrying is what it seeks: emails and correspondence between the EPA and several activists and journalists who were looking into how the state has regulated plants in the area known as "Cancer Alley."

The state alleges that the EPA may have been leaking information to activists, including details of negotiations that were not supposed to be public, and that the agency may have been unduly influenced by their concerns.

The state filed the FOIA request on June 29, and the EPA said it would take a year to fully comply with the request. The state filed the lawsuit Dec. 19, when now-Gov. Jeff Landry was still attorney general. The EPA then turned over hundreds of pages of documents. The lawsuit has been taken up by his successor and former top aide, Liz Murrill.

The state wants to see the emails of a number of grassroots and legal organizations: RISE St. James, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, the Coalition Against Death Alley, Concerned Citizens of St. John, the Sierra Club, Stop the Wallace Grain Terminal, Inclusive Louisiana, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. Reporters from this news organization as well as those from The Washington Post, WWNO, MSNBC, The Associated Press, The Guardian and WGNO-TV were also named in the lawsuit.

All this is in an apparent effort to bolster the state's position over the EPA's attempt to use "disparate impact" requirements to evaluate the state's regulatory framework for permitting environmental projects in poor and minority communities. In a recent ruling, U.S. District Judge James Cain temporarily blocked the EPA from using those rules in Louisiana.

It's not clear what smoking gun the state is hoping to find.

If the state wants to know what activists discussed with the EPA, it doesn't need a FOIA. According to our environmental reporter Mark Schleifstein, one activist, Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, sent a note to the administration that she's happy to discuss exactly what her organization is trying to do.

But if it wants to put activists on notice that state officials are watching what they say and do, then the suit certainly accomplishes that.

We always take threats to press freedoms seriously. This case, however, goes even further than that. It threatens to chill the efforts of law-abiding citizens to advocate on behalf of their communities.

Instead of asking what activists were telling the EPA, maybe state officials should ask themselves why Louisiana citizens didn't feel that they were being heard by the people elected to serve them.

-- The Advocate. February 6, 2024.

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