Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Court tells PADEP to provide drilling info to newspaper

An appeals court in Pennsylvania ruled Tuesday that the Department of Environmental Protection must release documents to The (Scranton) Times-Tribune in response to an open records request regardless of whether it is hard for the agency to find the records in its files.

A reporter for the newspaper in September had sought access to any letters sent to public and private water supply owners on whether nearby natural gas drilling operations had polluted or diminished the flow of water to their wells, as well as any enforcement orders stemming from such a determination.

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The department had challenged, among other things, whether the request was sufficiently specific, whether the office should have considered the burden on the department of locating and producing the records, and whether it had already made a good-faith search for them. 

Times-Tribune  reported today: 
"The three-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court agreed with an earlier decision by the state's Office of Open Records and found that the DEP cannot deny a sufficiently specific request under the state's Right to Know Law because the documents would be "burdensome" for the agency to find. It also noted that the DEP never physically searched its files to find the documents. 
"There is simply nothing in the RTKL that authorizes an agency to refuse to search for and produce documents based on the contention it would be too burdensome to do so," Judge Anne E. Covey wrote in the opinion, adding that the burden on DEP comes not from the records request, "but from DEP's method of tracking its records." 
[See the full ruling here]  
Newspaper attorney J. Timothy Hinton Jr. called the ruling "a good decision for public access." A PADEP spokesman said Tuesday that officials had just received and were reviewing the opinion.

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