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EPA accused of stonewalling records requests from conservative groups

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FILE -- Feb. 21, 2013: Gina McCarthy, Assistant Administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks at a climate workshop sponsored by the Climate Center at Georgetown University in Washington. (AP)

A conservative legal group filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, accusing the agency of stonewalling records requests and engaging in political bias when granting fee waivers for documents.

The Washington, D.C.-based Energy & Environment Legal Institute filed the suit in U.S. District Court in an attempt to force the EPA to turn over records related to the agency's controversial veto of a permit for a coal mine in West Virginia. 

The group claims it was blocked from accessing records under the Freedom of Information Act about the permit decision, which was based on the EPA's assertion that surface mining is harmful to mayfly populations, according to a news release. 

“[The] EPA’s push to protect the mayfly is not about cleaning up the environment, but an obsession with shutting down coal in America,” said Chris Horner, the group's legal counsel. “[The Obama] administration vowed to ‘bankrupt’ the coal industry, plainly an ideological move but one with grave human consequences."

The complaint alleges the agency has either delayed or denied several of the group's recent records requests. The EPA also refused to waive FOIA fees and demanded the group pay $2,000 before turning over the requested documents, according to the lawsuit.

"[The] EPA’s behavior is a clear parallel to the IRS's targeting of conservative groups," Horner told the Daily Caller. “Both impose financial hurdles in the way of groups they disapprove of, draining resources from those they see as threats and impeding the groups from pursuing their mission.” 

Last May, Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee accused the EPA of favoring left-leaning environmental groups over conservative groups when granting fee waivers for FOIA records requests. 

The senators pointed to a review by committee staff of more than 1,200 fee waiver requests that found that the agency waived fees requested by environmental groups 92 percent of the time. Fee waiver requests from conservative groups were rejected by the same percentage.

The EPA denied any favoritism at the time, telling Fox News that the agency's inspector general had launched a review of fee waiver policies and procedures. 

Horner said the agency denied a December 13 request from the Energy & Environment Legal Institute for a fee waiver, claiming the group "failed to express an intention to broadly disseminate" the requested information. 

The group responded by sending the EPA a photo of a chalkboard with the phrase, "We intend to broadly disseminate responsive information," written ten times. The agency again denied the request for a fee waiver. 

"Every time the agency uses these tactics they do succeed in delaying disclosure and wearing down smaller, private parties with far fewer resources than the federal government,” Horner said in a statement.

In a statement to The Washington Times, the EPA said it was unable to discuss the lawsuit because it is still ongoing. Still, agency officials reiterated that they don't make determinations on records requests based on political leanings.  

"EPA makes FOIA waiver determinations based on legal requirements that are consistently applied to all fee waiver requests, not on the identity of the requester,” the agency said.