Professor Sarah Lamdan is the author of the new book Environmental Information: Research, Access and Environmental Decisionmaking, published by the Environmental Law Institute.
CUNY Law students Maria Brinkmann ‘18, Jonathan Cantarero ‘16, Robert Feliu ‘16 and April Whitehead ‘17 provided research assistance.
Here, Professor Lamdan discusses her book and considers what role access to environmental information can play in the future.
Why did you choose to research this subject?
In my work as a legal information specialist, librarian and an environmental law-focused lawyer, I noticed that there were few resources to help people looking for environmental information. There are many resources to help people conducting research in other legal fields, including securities and corporate law. Areas of the law that are largely the focus of public interest attorneys, like environmental law, criminal law and immigration law don’t have the same wealth of information access resources. I decided to write a practical book for environmental information seekers, including laypeople, environmental advocacy groups, journalists, law students and practitioners and to do it in a format that can be duplicated for other legal fields such as immigration and health law. Not only is this a book for environmental information seekers, it is also a template that I hope others will use to create similar works for other areas of law.
Why is access to environmental information important?
Environmental information is necessary for understanding and solving any and all environmental issues. In fact, international law has recognized environmental information access as a human right. Before engaging in environmental advocacy, policy-making, or decision-making, all of the parties involved need the facts, figures, data, and policies of environmental phenomena, circumstances, and realities at issue.
Environmental information is the backbone of environmental law and regulation, playing a critical and necessary role at every level of environmental decision-making. Governments, industry, and the public all need comprehensive, trusted, and timely environmental information to make decisions about environmental issues. Without this information, people cannot properly take stock in the state of their environmental surroundings.
Knowing about environmental projects, which are often government-facilitated, and access to environmental data, which is often collected and maintained by the government, also honor the notion that U.S. citizens have a fundamental right to know about what their government is doing. Thus, providing more information to the public puts citizens in a better position to bargain with private entities as well as the government.
Environmental information access is also important because transparency can substantially affect government behavior. Transparency serves as a preventative measure for environmentally detrimental practices, exposing transgressions before they permanently damage the environment. It also empowers citizens to assume an adversarial role when necessary, since this type of information is needed when filing lawsuits against parties violating environmental statutes and regulations. When environmental information is available to the public, individuals can file citizen suits to prevent the damage before it occurs through injunctive relief, rather than engaging in litigation only after the environmental damage has been done.
What are some obstacles to getting, understanding and acting on environmental information?
I discuss the major obstacles to getting, understanding, and acting on environmental information in the book, and also in the law review article addressing environmental information access policy issues that I wrote to accompany the book (available here).
In short, I found four major issues:
- publicly available environmental information on the EPA’s website and elsewhere is not well organized and it’s very hard to find;
- environmental information is often incomplete and hard to understand because of data collection processes and scientific jargon;
- there are often long delays to get timely environmental information (data can take a long time to compile, and transparency laws like FOIA can take a long time to provide fruitful records requests);
- the information systems and technology used by federal, state and local governments (government entities collect and store the majority of environmental information in the U.S.) are outdated, silo-ing information in unsearchable or hard-to-search databases and information systems, or in formats that can no longer be opened on modern computer interfaces, etc.
Tell us about an instance when citizens were able to use environmental information to significantly influence a decision about the environment.
There are many instances where citizens use environmental information to file citizen suits under environmental statutes, advocate for environmental protection, and learn about environmental threats. One major instance is the Flint, Michigan water crisis, where people were made aware of dangerously high levels of lead in drinking water due to a scientist’s federal and state Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests.
What role do you hope environmental information can play under the current administration?
Mostly, I hope that environmental information access is not blocked under the current administration. We’ve already seen efforts to decrease the availability of information regarding climate change and greenhouse gas data and policies. I worked with the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI) on efforts to maintain environmental data collection and access, and continue to work with librarians and archivists on initiatives and projects to secure the availability of environmental information and improve access to environmental data. In an ideal world, I’d love to work on initiatives and efforts to implement special environmental information regulations like the ones in the UK, which provide broader access to environmental information than the traditional FOIA laws, but in the current political climate, I’ve been focusing my efforts on emphasizing the importance of environmental information access in the hopes that the concept of environmental information access as a human right is extended to future generations.