More than 100 Organizations Make Environmental Right-to-Know Recommendations to Obama Administration

On May 10, on behalf of more than 100 public interest organizations, OMB Watch presented a set of detailed environmental right-to-know recommendations to the Obama administration. Collaboratively drafted and endorsed by advocates from across the country, the recommendations aim to expand access to environmental information, equip citizens with data about their environmental health, and empower Americans to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from toxic pollution.

Though the Obama administration has launched several notable projects to improve transparency and accountability over the past few years, many environment and health advocates believe that Americans still lack adequate information to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from environmental harm. The 103-page report entitled, An Agenda to Strengthen Our Right to Know: Empowering Citizens with Environmental, Health, and Safety Information, offers specific recommendations on a variety of issues to address the perceived gaps in environmental information.

The Recommendations

The report is divided into five chapters, each corresponding to specific needs:

  1. Improving access to information
  2. Improving existing information sources
  3. What new information is needed
  4. Environmental justice
  5. Empowering communities

Each chapter includes specific recommendations, organized under a number of subtopics.

Many of the recommendations involve detailed proposals calling for specific changes to how a certain agency performs a particular function. For example, chapter one includes recommendations for agencies to improve their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policies. These recommendations include increased training of FOIA officers and auditing FOIA responses to review the consistency and extent to which FOIA officers are fulfilling FOIA requests. Other recommendations, including creating new public affairs office policies, are more general, calling on the federal government to implement broad changes to reverse years of secrecy and isolation from the public.

There are three key priorities woven throughout the recommendations:

  • Environmental justice must always be considered – Minority and low-income communities have historically borne a far greater proportion of environmental harm than other communities, and several recommendations address the need to improve data on this issue.
  • Health risks from chemicals need to be better tracked and communicated to the public – There is a great need for more and better data on potential impacts to vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children, without overuse of restrictions such as trade secrets.
  • Public participation has to start with the government – While there are many communities, organizations, and individuals across the country who are interested and concerned about environmental issues, the first steps to getting those people to engage must come from the government.

The report also includes several steps that the government can and should get started on right away. They include:

  • Increase the collection and distribution of environmental justice data
  • Fill data gaps on the harm from chemicals, as well as address information shortfalls on safer alternatives
  • Ensure product labels disclose all ingredients and their associated risks
  • Forge the Toxics Release Inventory into a more powerful disclosure tool
  • Develop a unified facility reporting system
  • Provide for worker and public participation.

The Environmental Information Initiative

The report is part of OMB Watch’s Environmental Information Initiative (EII) project and is the result of a year-long collaborative effort. The project began in January 2010 with a small conference of advocates representing public health groups; labor organizations; local, state, and national environmental groups; and academic researchers. OMB Watch then organized several listening sessions across the nation and conducted interviews with advocates in various regions to gather information from stakeholders and to develop a draft agenda of policy recommendations.

In November 2010, nearly 100 public interest advocates from around the country convened in Washington, DC, to provide input on the recommendations. White House policy advisor Steven Croley, EPA Chief Information Officer Malcolm Jackson, and officials from the Departments of Interior and Health and Human Services spoke to the advocates and discussed several of the administration's open government initiatives, setting the stage for conversations on how to move the administration's transparency agenda forward and address environmental concerns.

Using input from conference participants, including a recommendations panel of 11 advocates with various backgrounds, OMB Watch finalized the recommendations and released them in report form on May 10.

Moving Forward

Several organizations have begun highlighting the report’s significance to their work. Beyond Pesticides emphasized the importance of the report for addressing the current pitfalls with pesticide use and illness reporting data, noting that the recommendations include calls for required reporting and disclosure of this information. The Government Accountability Project (GAP) discussed the report’s role for updating federal whistleblower protection policies, stressing that increasing transparency would protect workers and consumers, thereby strengthening food safety. GAP executive director Mark Cohen told OMB Watch, "The report is a significant tool for promoting greater government transparency and accountability." Climate Science Watch focused on the report’s role in improving access to information and technical and policy experts, particularly for scientists, researchers, and the media.

OMB Watch, along with participating groups, is developing advocacy strategies to move forward with recommendations and make the most progress possible before the end of Obama’s current term.

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