In early February, at a community meeting attended by eight Point Loma residents, the Navy revealed that between 1999 and 2003, 1.5 million gallons of jet fuel had seeped out of aging storage tanks and into the groundwater under Naval Base Point Loma. There, it had coalesced into a giant plume that then took an unexpected left turn, heading up-rather than down-the Point Loma peninsula toward the tony La Playa neighborhood. At that point-and still-a series of monitoring wells set up around the perimeter of the plume showed it hadn't hit the bay. New wells will show whether the plume has spread into La Playa.
Gabriel Solmer, an attorney for San Diego Coastkeeper, an environmental watchdog group, said Coastkeeper staff found out about the spill only after reading about it in a newspaper article.
“We were concerned, given the proximity to the bay,” she said.
So Solmer had one of Coastkeeper's legal interns draft a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, asking the Navy for any and all records pertaining to the fuel spill. As a watchdog, “we're... trying to make sure the information is accessible to the people affected by the situation,” she said.
The point of FOIA, first enacted by Congress 40 years ago, is that, with some exceptions, the public has the right to know what its government is up to. And that's what motivated Coastkeeper's request. They weren't “looking for some sort of smoking gun that anyone did anything wrong,” Solmer said. “We were trying to find out the extent and severity of the problem.” Though the Navy was saying the fuel hadn't entered the bay, were monitoring wells in the right places? Solmer wanted to know. How often were they being checked? Why did the plume migrate north rather than follow the expected path toward the bay? When Coastkeeper submitted its request, it didn't have answers to these questions.
Three months later, Solmer received a response from the Navy: Coastkeeper could get the records but it would have to pay five government workers $44 an hour for 1,204 hours of records searches, or $52,976. Then to photocopy those records-34,050 pages, according to the letter-it would be another $5,107.50. In all, it would cost Coastkeeper $57,980.50 to get the requested information.
At that point, Solmer said, it went from being “a water-quality issue to a FOIA issue.”
“Usually what an agency will do, they'll write back and they'll say, ‘Your request is broad; is there a particular area of time or space you're interested in?'-not send back an answer that says, ‘For $57,000 we can respond to your request,'” she said.
CityBeat was unable to reach James Masingill, the FOIA officer handling Coastkeeper's request for the Navy.
FOIA fees are normally waived if a requester “can show... that the disclosure is in the public interest,” said Scott Amey, an attorney with the Project on Government Oversight. Amey also pointed out that most agencies will ask for clarification if a request seems too broad. “Most FOIA officers truly care about getting information to the media and public,” he said.
In a letter sent March 31, prior to receiving the rundown of fees, Solmer outlined for the Navy why Coastkeeper met FOIA's public-interest test: “Our intent to disseminate the information is commensurate with our ambit as advocates for clean water,” the letter said.
Amey said that post-9/11 there was concern that national-security matters would quash most FOIA requests. But, he said, studies have shown that, “with the Bush administration, fee waivers have actually been the biggest hurdle for people to file FOIA requests.”
Capt. Mark Patton, who assumed command of Naval Base Point Loma in September, said the excessive fees had nothing to do with trying to keep information from Coastkeeper or the public.
“The amount of data they're asking for is huge,” he said. “Essentially, what they gave us left us no choice but to come back with a fairly bureaucratic answer that says, well, if this is really all that you want, when you start adding up the data search, the records search, the IT efforts... it becomes a very expensive proposition.
“It's not that we have anything to hide; in fact, it's the exact opposite.... We really are trying to be as open and honest as possible... and if there's information out there, we'll help provide it.”
Indeed, since Coastkeeper first submitted its request, Patton has held two more better-attended public forums. At a July meeting, he explained why the plume migrated to the north. “It could be a fracture or a crack or an area of different sediment and it runs north-south. We're looking at expanding that data to see if we can't get some better understanding,” he said.
Laurie Walsh, an engineer with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Board, a state agency overseeing the fuel-spill monitoring and clean-up process, said the Navy's actions on the spill have so far been “atypical” of her experience. “A lot of times, [clean-up] sites will do a bare minimum in order to maintain compliance,” she said, “but... they have put in a lot of [monitoring] wells; they have been forthright with information.”
Monitoring wells are checked annually, Walsh said. She's currently reviewing that practice to see if twice-annual checks might be more prudent. The wells closest to the bay have come up as “non-detect” since they were installed, she said. “So once a year is usually OK.”
Much of the information Walsh reviews, like reports from monitoring wells, has been uploaded to a water-board website called GeoTracker. Patton pointed this out, though admitted navigating the highly technical site can be challenging. A Coastkeeper intern is currently working through the online data, Solmer said.
Patton said that after Coastkeeper filed its information request, he offered to meet with the group. Solmer said she was unaware of such an offer.
“I certainly think that if they invited us to the community meetings and either invited us out to the site or [to meet with us], then we could be in a much more cooperative position,” she said. “It's probably more a case of the right people didn't end up talking to each other.
“It sounds like they are dealing with the situation, and have been for the last four or five years, but we're just concerned any time we have a case where we're not able to get the information that we need.”