Environmental groups sue Coast Guard

Several environmental groups Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Coast Guard challenging a denial of two Freedom of Information Act requests from the groups about response to an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

The groups, through the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, filed a complaint in U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, asking the court to force the Coast Guard to release information requested in 2011 about leaking wells 11 miles from Louisiana’s coast that were damaged in 2004 during an underwater landslide.

In a separate action, the groups filed a lawsuit against Taylor Energy Co. LLC of New Orleans in February 2012 alleging there were up to 28 wells that continued to leak oil.

Machelle Hall, an attorney with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic representing the plaintiffs, said the two lawsuits may involve the same topic, but they are separate issues.

“We asked for the information from the Coast Guard about the Taylor leak before we ever filed a lawsuit against Taylor,” Hall said. The information requested through the FOIA is public information, whereas the information that would be collected through discovery for trial can be of a more private nature, she said.

According to the complaint filed Tuesday, the plaintiffs made a FOIA request with the Coast Guard in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 19, 2011, requesting “any and all public records relating to reporting” information in the Mississippi Canyon block 20 of the Gulf of Mexico and associated with Taylor Energy.

Although the plaintiffs received partial information on three activities related to the request, the Coast Guard didn’t release information about the oil leak, according to the complaint.

On June 25, 2012, the Coast Guard released 19 of 256 pages, withheld most of the information requested and cited two FOIA exemptions.

The first exemption was that the documents included internal discussion memos, which are protected to help shield agencies’ ability to deliberate or discuss private information and make decisions. However, materials that are purely factual, like how much oil was assumed to be leaking, would not be covered by that exemption, Hall said.

The second exemption used by the Coast Guard states that the material can be kept from the public if its release “could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings,” according to the lawsuit.

In addition, the agency using this exemption must show, “by more than conclusory statements, how the particular kinds of investigatory records requested would interfere with a pending enforcement proceedings,” according to the lawsuit.

Hall said the response the plaintiffs received from the Coast Guard in the denial was “the incident is under investigation.”

A second FOIA request was sent on Dec. 5, 2011, for documents about efforts to decommission wells in the area of the leaking wells.

Although the Coast Guard acknowledged receiving the letter that day, the plaintiffs have not received a response, Hall said.

The plaintiffs are Waterkeeper Alliance, Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, Galveston Baykeeper, Louisiana Bayoukeeper, Apalachicola Riverkeeper and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

A call to the Coast Guard media relations office in Washington, D.C., Tuesday afternoon wasn’t returned as of press time.