What is a public document? That question is the latest battleground in the yearslong war over proposed changes in what kinds of studies and data the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will allow to be considered in shaping regulations.
The changes, which EPA says are meant to promote transparency and “sound science,” have been fiercely criticized by the research community and environmental groups. They would generally bar the agency from using data that are not publicly available. But critics worry that excluding those data will allow EPA to ignore studies that rest on difficult-to-release information, such as confidential patient records, that have played a key role in shaping stiffer regulations.
Last month, EPA opened a new front by proposing to define a public document in a way that critics say runs counter to the agency’s professed goal of transparency. The definition, included in a 3 March EPA notice seeking additional comments on the broader transparency proposal, covers documents available through “disclosures to the general public that are required to be made by federal, state, or local law.” In practice, that means the definition encompasses data and documents that can be obtained from EPA only through requests made under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).