The Missouri Coalition for the Environment has accused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of withholding information on mining and other development projects that could damage wetlands.
The environmental group filed suit against the Corps of Engineers in late March, alleging that the agency denied it access to permits and documents that relate to mining and other types of projects. The suit claims that the Corps of Engineers' St. Louis and Little Rock districts have repeatedly refused to release documents, such as permit applications, using an exemption of the Freedom of Information Act.
Federal agencies will use Exemption 5 of FOIA to keep from disclosing documents that contain information they are not required by law to disclose, or details that are important in a decision-making process.
Disclosing such information is in the public's interest, said Elizabeth Hubertz, a Washington University lawyer who represents the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
"[If] people are going to be doing things that harm the environment, we want to know about them. We want to know why they're doing them," Hubertz said. "In the case of these Corps permits, we want to know what they're going to do to mitigate for it."
For example, the suit discusses how the Missouri Coalition for the Environment wanted information about the work Doe Run Company performed in 2014 to reroute a branch of the West Fork Black River in Reynolds County around one of its mines. The mine's operations caused a sinkhole to form under the river, flooding the mine. Doe Run asked the Corps of Engineers to approve a temporary diversion of the stream, and the agency issued an emergency permit; Doe Run is seeking to make the change permanent.
The diversion has destroyed wetlands and removed a significant portion of the stream, Hubertz said. The Missouri Coalition of the Environment asked for documents related to the company's application to make the diversion permanent, but the Corps of Engineers used the FOIA exemption to deny the request. The public-comment period for Doe Run's reroute of the West Fork Black River ends on April 15.
The environmental group also has sued the federal agency in order to obtain permits, but Hubertz said the organization often receives them too late to use them to participate in a public-comment period of a project.
"It's very hard to get the information at the time we need it," Hubertz said. "There's this pattern that's happened over and over again, and nothing we've done so far has stopped it from happening."
The Corps of Engineers said it does not comment on matters of litigation.
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An example of a FOIA Exemption 5 letter:
Missouri Coalition for the Environment's lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: