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Interior Faces Pushback Over Proposed Changes To Public Records Requests Processing


Over the holidays, the Department of the Interior (DOI) proposed changes to how it will handle public records requests. Now, the head of the committee that oversees the department is requesting a public hearing into the proposed changes.

Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said it's already difficult to get information from the Interior. He blames that on the energy industry having too many seats of power in the agency.

"Part of the issue is that there's a loop in Interior that has industry all through it. And positions of decision-making and positions to regulate the industry," Grijalva said, in addition to policy-makers. "Now, one wonders why legitimate requests for information, press requests, to get the information behind a decision, linger and people wait and wait."

The DOI argues the level of public record requests have skyrocketed since 2016, increasing 210 percent in the Office of the Secretary Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office. An explanation in the federal register added the proposed changes would reduce the burden and improve service to customers. Grijalva said the proposed changes would reduce the amount of information released through FOIA while staff changes could make a difference.

Grijalva said the proposal came out at a difficult time for public participation - both over the holidays and during a government shutdown. The public comment period is set to end January 28. Grijalva wants to extend that to four months after the government reopens.

The Interior department's proposal would give the agency greater discretion over how, or whether, it responds to public information requests. Advocacy groups also interpreted a chance as limited monthly requests by a given group or individual to process more documents in an equitable way.

A representative with the Interior Department said that's not true.

"The monthly processing limit referenced would simply allow the Bureau to process documents in an equitable way. The specific policies would vary by Bureau and capacity," she said.

In a letter to DOI Acting Secretary David Bernhardt, Grijalva called for public comment to be postponed for 120 days after the government has re-opened. It expires tonight at midnight. Grijalva also called for a public hearing about the proposed changes.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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