Monday, May 5, 2014

U.S. Coast Guard FOIA release - Part 1

On May 2, 2014, I received a release of information from the U.S. Coast Guard related to STORIS and my Freedom of Information Request from Nov. 4, 2013. Not counting the already described “partial release’ from the Coast Guard of dubious integrity that I received on Feb. 27, it took just shy of six months to get a response. Even then, it falls short in many ways.

In many ways, however, some of the information that was turned over is revealing and revolting. There is no doubt that anger will be shared by many. The GSA release is yet to come. As this information gathering continues, it is clear that we never had a chance to save STORIS for preservation, even before she was illegally excessed, illegally sold and illegally exported to Mexico for scrapping.

This is another long series of posts, but if you care about STORIS, I urge you to read this as there are details that need to be known. Encourage your shipmates, family, friends and others to read, too.

The documents from the Coast Guard were accompanied by a cover letter that indicated that information was redacted for privacy issues following established procedures in the FOIA laws. While it is understood for various documents that were generated because of private citizens inquiries to Congressional offices on behalf of the ship, there are some serious questions as to the validity of redacting other names from the documents. Many of the redacted segments involved the names of various Coast Guard officers/officials who would be considered public officials. As such, they would have no expectation of privacy. The pursuit of this information is related to their actions and decisions made in an official capacity as members of the Coast Guard associated with the handling and disposition of STORIS. Their names should be public as well as their roles in the ship’s disrespectful disposal. The names of several other officers, with ranks as high as RADM, are not redacted. Why?

This goes back to the previous discussions about President Obama’s directive for Open Government and Atty General Eric Holder’s subsequent memo: “While recognizing that the "disclosure obligation under the FOIA is not absolute," and that the FOIA contains exemptions to protect, for example, national security, personal privacy, privileged records, and law enforcement interests, the Guidelines stress that the President has directed agencies not to withhold information merely to prevent embarrassment, or because "errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears."

I had to go through to redact MY personal information from a couple pages before posting to the Internet. It’s swell that the Coast Guard officers involved try to keep their hands clean in this issue, but it’s okay to release personal information from private citizens. As a result, the original 70 pages, while released in one PDF document, have been broken into five documents. The only changes made were to redact my contact information so I could post the information. The cover letter points out that my request fell below the $14 minimum for payment requirements, so the FOIA was released at no charge. (Of course, then you have EPA, which was going to charge $767.75 for one FOIA request at one point and then GSA who demanded $10,266 for its FOIA…) Click here to read the cover letter.

The first few pages are letters from Congressional representatives supporting the ship’s donation for museum use.

Page 6 lays out the excessing process through GSA. We have subsequently learned that STORIS should not have been excessed through GSA as her displacement exceeded 1,500 tons (40 U.S.C. 548). The process of excessing and selling STORIS was a violation of Federal Law. There are strong suspicions that STORIS also contained undocumented materials that contained regulated levels of PCBs, which would also have made the “distribution in commerce” of the ship from the Coast Guard a violation of Federal Law. This was discussed in the review of the Environmental Assessment performed on the ship (and ACUSHNET) prior to her decommissioning and elsewhere within other posts.

Pages 12 generally outlines the circumstances through which the ship was disposed. The Coast Guard claims that the ship was free of regulated PCBs based on a memo from Jan. 17, 2007 that was a simple cover sheet for a 2000 Hazardous Material survey conducted on the ship. The legitimacy of this PCB abatement process is highly suspect as has been discussed in other posts. There has been serious concern about the 2000 Haz-Mat survey and its obvious avoidance of the areas of the ship where PCBs would most likely be found. Other than a short PowerPoint presentation and a brief mention on a Jan. 17, 2007 cover letter, there is no supporting documentation to prove that ALL of the encapsulated PCBs were removed from the ship. More on that cover letter in a moment… The letter also lays the determination of the bidder and timetable for the removal squarely with GSA. However, it is our understanding that the Coast Guard was not pleased with the timetable and may have even requested through GSA that the sale be nullified because the ship was to be removed by early July and instead, remained at the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet until Oct. 25. The Coast Guard was in a position to have to continue paying for mooring costs at the SBRF. This was later revealed in the documentation to be around $51,000. So that would mean that three, possibly four months of rent at the SBRF would come to $12,750 to $17,000. Who paid that, the CG or the buyer, U.S. Metals Recovery?  The GSA documentation is crucial to understanding a lot of these issues.

The remainder of Part 1 is the questionable Haz-Mat survey from 2000, with the last document being the cover letter from Jan. 17, 2007. Strangely and suspiciously, the first line of the cover letter has been redacted out. WHY? The redacted paragraph serves as the whole foundation upon which rests the Coast Guard’s whole argument for the ship being free of regulated PCBs.

We have copies of the cover letter from other sources, so I can report that the redacted paragraph reads:  

“1. Please be advised that the CGC STORIS is free of PCBs. All material that is above 50 ppm and not defined as totally enclosed are considered PCB containing for regulatory purposes.”

Why would the Coast Guard redact that paragraph, again especially considering those few words form the basis for their defense that the ship was free of regulated PCBs and therefore not in violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act and other Federal laws that regulate/prohibit the transfer and export of PCB-containing ships through the Federal Government?

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