A coalition of environmental groups and local taxpayers today filed suit against the U.S. Department of Interior to force the agency to comply with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The groups seek the release of information related to the Animas-La Plata (ALP) Water Project, a large dam-and-diversion project proposed for construction in southwestern Colorado.
Interior refuses to disclose 21 documents describing secret meetings between the agency and supporters of ALP. In an action in the U.S. District Court in Colorado, Taxpayers for the Animas River and other groups seek immediate release of the documents under FOIA. Interior has claimed that contents of their documents are exempt from FOIA and need not be exposed to public scrutiny.
"The Department of Interior has failed to provide any reasonable justification for its refusal to release these documents," said Marie Kirk, an attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, representing the plaintiff groups. "The law does not permit an agency to keep its negotiations with outside parties a secret."
Last fall, the Department of Interior shelved plans to build the original Animas-La Plata project. In the wake of this failure, Interior began a series of meetings with so-called "interested parties," all of whom turned out to be supporters of the project. Taxpayers for the Animas River, Four Corners Action Coalition, and Sierra Club twice made formal requests to participate in these meetings, but Interior refused to admit them.
"We have a right to know the content of Interior's discussions with the supporters of the Animas-La Plata project," said Michael Black, a member of Taxpayers for the Animas River. "The agency cannot invite certain parties to the negotiating table and exclude others, and then refuse to tell the public what it is doing," he said. "We live and pay taxes in this area. We have legitimate concerns about the economic and environmental costs of the ALP project, and we deserve a right to participate as equal negotiating partners in this process."
The parties participating in the negotiations include the San Juan Water Commission, the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes, the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District and other entities, many of whom represent the interests of private water users. The negotiations have covered plans for a successor project and discussions about the environmental compliance. The plaintiff groups submitted two separate public records requests in September and October to uncover the details of these meetings. However, in clear violation of FOIA, Interior still refuses to release any of the details of the subject matter and content of these meetings.
"The secret meetings apparently are ongoing," said Lori Potter of Kelly/Haglund/Garnsey & Kahn, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "This kind of behind-closed-doors political maneuvering is exactly what has killed Animas-La Plata proposals in the past. It will surely kill any successor project."
The plaintiff groups intend to continue to fight for admission to the governmental decisionmaking process. The information plaintiffs seek will help them to ascertain whether plans for a new ALP project serve the public's fiscal interest and comply with environmental laws. Release of the information will enable the groups to prepare for and participate fully in the public comment process about Animas-La Plata alternatives expected to occur this summer.
"If the government wants to propose construction of a new Animas-La Plata project, it is going to have to openly discuss the alternatives." said Potter. "Holding secret meetings, making back-room deals, and shutting concerned citizens out of the process is no way to conduct the public's business," she added.