Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Proposed legislation to address FOIA roadblocks

“A fundamental premise of American democratic theory is that government exists to serve the people. … Public records are one portal through which the people observe their government, ensuring its accountability, integrity, and equity while minimizing sovereign mischief and malfeasance.” -- Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor

“Far too often when citizens seek records from our government, they are met with long delays, denials and difficulty. Federal agencies can routinely and repeatedly deny requests for information with near impunity. Making the situation worse, requesters have few alternatives to lawsuits to appeal an agency’s decision.” Sen. John Cornyn, TX

As stated earlier, there will be opportunities for STORIS supporters to join in and help with this effort to find accountability from those responsible for destroying the ship. This is one opportunity.

At this time last year, Congress was on vacation and of no help to us as we struggled to save STORIS. Not much help after they came back either, come to think of it… Anyway, a year later, lawmakers are again on vacation. When Congress returns, they have a full agenda of issues to deal with. The following letter to the editor implores Congress to take up legislation introduced by Senators John Cornyn and Patrick Leahy to mandate government transparency in responding federal Freedom of Information Act requests. This piece is written by Denise Rucker Krepp, former chief counsel for MARAD and now an advocate for maritime industry, transportation safety and government transparency. It outlines issues with FOIA difficulties that closely mirror those that I have been experiencing with MARAD, EPA, USCG and GSA in the efforts to find the truth about STORIS and her disrespectful, illegal sale and disposition. From our position with STO, it’s a combination of no cooperation, stonewalling and exorbitant/punitive fees to discourage efforts to seek information related to the ship and her ignoble disposition. 

The letter makes several excellent points, both from the perspective of this so-called “most transparent government in U.S. History” and from the angle of the U.S. government facilitating the export of American ships to foreign scrapyards. Secrecy in government is never productive or honest. Sending potentially toxic ships overseas for breaking in third-world countries is certainly less than responsible. This is particularly true since the government is also sending potential jobs away from American ship recycling companies and their workers.

But how does STORIS fit in this situation since it wasn’t our intention to see her scrapped? GSA should not have been involved with the ship because she was too large, displacing more than 1,500 tons. STORIS should have been ineligible for sale anyway since we know now that she contained undocumented materials that likely contained regulated amounts of toxic/hazardous materials. The government denies it – especially the Coast Guard -- but common sense and reliable witness statements and input from experienced and honorable veterans with first-hand knowledge of STORIS and similar vessels all raise some serious questions about the truthfulness of the CG and its testing/reporting protocols. The recently acquired documents from MARAD also show that Maritime Administration officials were even questioning the designation of the ship as “free of regulated PCBs.” STORIS was in excellent physical condition and should have been donated or otherwise made available for museum use, particularly since she was listed as nationally significant on the National Register of Historic Places. The hazardous materials in question would have been moot as they would have remained encapsulated and safe aboard the ship as used as a museum. GSA and its bureaucrats crushed all the dreams we had for STORIS.

Instead, STORIS was sold to an unscrupulous scrap dealer of questionable moral character. After he was unsuccessful in trying to extort money from the nonprofits who hoped to save the ship, this “scrapper” was allowed by the government to illegally export STORIS out of the country. The U.S. Federal Government gave its blessing for STORIS to be taken to what amounts to a third-world Mexican “scrapyard” for dismantling in the middle of a field. The U.S. Federal Government, represented by the U.S. Coast Guard, Maritime Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and General Services Agency, sanctioned the illegal export of a retired U.S. military ship in violation of federal laws that are supposed to prevent this from happening. And now these agencies are withholding the circumstances of that illegal situation from us. They are either not complying or are releasing heavily redacted information, hiding behind “deliberative privilege” or “attorney-client privilege.” 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy’s retired supercarrier USS CONSTELLATION departed last week from her long-term layup berth in Bremerton, WA, headed for Brownsville, TX, and responsible recycling. It’s a 16,000 mile tow since she won’t fit through the Panama Canal. Compared to STORIS, the CONNIE is a behemoth. The process for CONSTELLATION is a lot more transparent. But then again, it’s a lot harder to sneak around with or hide an aircraft carrier. 

If the government can break the rules with modest little STORIS and let her out of the country for dismantling, what’s to say they won’t try something else? U.S.-flagged merchant vessels have been streaming to the third-world beaches in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh for years, hazardous materials and all. 

The lack of cooperation from the government related to STORIS, while not surprising, can only breed deep suspicion of the bureaucrats and officials responsible for this situation with STORIS. If their actions were above board and proper, what are they hiding?

Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, a conservative legal group is filing suit against the government, alleging that the White House is meddling in FOIA requests, stalling the release of information that might be embarrassing to the administration. Among the 12 agencies targeted in the suit are the Department of Homeland Security (to which the Coast Guard belongs) and the Department of Transportation (parent agency of MARAD).

While Congress was not exactly responsive when we tried to appeal to them for help last year, I think we STORIS supporters should once again take up the pen and appeal to our legislators to support this Cornyn/Leahy legislation for the sake of finding the truth. If we don’t speak up, it’s easy to ignore us. 

STORIS is gone thanks to the government, but we deserve answers. STORIS and all of her crews served the United States faithfully for over 64 years. She and all of you deserved better. We can’t let her be forgotten. We need to keep her memory alive and share our anger at what was allowed to happen to The Queen of the Fleet. 

There needs to be accountability. We deserve answers and the people responsible deserve consequences.

I am hoping there will be other opportunities to have our voices heard and will let everyone know when those chances arise.


No comments:

Post a Comment