Sep 27, 2007
Journal Staff Writer
The U.S. Department of Energy made a "mockery" out of open-records laws by taking nearly two years to provide requested information concerning Los Alamos National Laboratory to a government watchdog group, a federal judge has found.
The judge ruled last week that DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration violated the Freedom of Information Act by creating a "convoluted" review process for determining what can be released to the public.
In a sharply worded ruling, U.S. District Judge Bruce Black found that the agency offered "no rationale" for the complex method of handling information requests "or the inevitable delay it guarantees."
The federal law is intended to allow citizens to learn what their government is doing. Government agencies have 20 days after receiving an information request to provide the records or notify the party making the request of a denial.
In December 2004, Nuclear Watch New Mexico submitted a request to the NNSA's Albuquerque office for copies of Los Alamos' Ten-Year Comprehensive Site Plans for 2002 through 2005.
The lab and other NNSA sites compile the comprehensive site plans annually and include information on existing programs and missions, as well as plans and goals for future facilities, weapons work, land-use and operations.
When the plans were not delivered, the group sued for their release, alleging a "pattern and practice of unlawfully withholding agency records" by the NNSA.
The redacted records were not released until June 2006, more than 17 months after they were requested.
NNSA's Albuquerque office is responsible for handling information requests for itself and five other NNSA site offices, including Los Alamos and the Pantex Plant in Texas.
NNSA has argued that an extensive, multilayered review process was needed to ensure that sensitive information was redacted from the documents.
Nuclear Watch executive director Jay Coghlan said the group would continue to insist that NNSA provide documents in a timely manner.
"We won't tolerate the months and years of delays and suppression of information that NNSA is guilty of," Coghlan said in a statement.
Black wrote in his ruling that he would schedule future hearings on possible remedies for the violation.
Coghlan responded, "We look forward to real remedies that require prompt disclosure of information under citizens' right to know."