Freedom of Information Act
How to Make a FOIA Request in the Pacific Islands Area
FOIA: Like all federal agencies, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is required under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and also by USDA regulations at 7 CFR, to disclose records requested in writing by any person. However, agencies may withhold information pursuant to nine exemptions and three exclusions contained in the statute. Examples of information exempt under from mandatory disclosure include: classified national security, business proprietary, personal privacy, and investigative.
Privacy Act: The Privacy Act (PA) of 1974, was enacted to protect individuals against unwarranted invasions of their privacy stemming from the collection, maintenance, use, and disclosure of personal information about them by Federal agencies. It also grants individuals the right of access to records maintained on themselves unless covered by an exemption.
2002 Farm Bill: Section 2004 of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (Farm Bill) mandated changes to the NRCS Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policy. Section 2004 of the Farm Bill mandates that information provided by individuals to NRCS or to contractors or consultants of NRCS, to participate, in conservation programs, is not considered public information and is not releasable to the public by any employee, contractor, or consultant.
Information, including the location of National Resources Inventory data collection points, may be disclosed only if it has been converted into a statistical or aggregate form that does not allow the identification of the individual supplier.
Exception: An exception allows NRCS to release or share conservation files with their conservation partners such as the conservation district employees to the extent necessary to assist in carry out technical and financial assistance in NRCS programs. NRCS employees and their conservation partners must not release any non-public (private) information that:
1) Reflects on the producer’s personal, commercial, or financial matters;
2) Causes substantial harm to the competitive position of the producer; or
3) Impairs the ability of NRCS to obtain similar, necessary information in the future.
Distinguishing Request that Should Be Handled Under FOIA
Examples of information that may be routinely provided without a FOIA request are: publications, soil surveys, brochures, press releases, Field Office Technical Guide material, manuals, handbooks, General Manual parts, and non-copyrighted references. No written request is required for an employee to see his/her own official personnel file or for an owner, operator, or producer to see his/her own files.
All requests for agency records, not exempt or protected from disclosure, require a FOIA request. The FOIA/PA Officer for the Pacific Islands Area should be contacted if questions arise whether to release information covered by the FOIA and PA pursuant to one of the exemptions under the Acts.
How to Make a FOIA Request
All FOIA requests must be in writing either by mail, fax, or electronic mail. Requests for records in the Pacific Islands Area should be sent to the FOIA/PA Officer for the Pacific Islands Area (see contact information below). NRCS field offices are not to respond to FOIA requests unless the FOIA/PA Officer specifically instructs them to release records after the written request has been reviewed. If requests are received in field offices, they are to be forwarded the same working day they are received to the FOIA/PA Officer. This is particularly important since the law requires that requests be answered in 20 working days.
For requests for records which are national in scope, send a written request to FOIA Officer, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Management Services Division, P.O. Box 2890, Washington, D.C. 20013.
Requesters should indicate that their request is being made under the Freedom of Information Act. Requesters should identify the records wanted as accurately as possible, with as much detail that would be helpful for locating the information (subject matter, date, place where the record was created, the person or office that created it, the present custodian of the record, etc).
A FOIA request can be made for any agency record. This does not mean, however, that the agency will disclose all records sought. As noted above, there are statutory exemptions that authorize the withholding of information of a sensitive nature.
Requesters may only seek records that are in existence at the time that the FOIA request is received, and may not require that new records be created in response to the request, nor does FOIA require agencies to do research for you, to analyze data, or to answer written questions.
Requesters should provide a phone number and mailing address so that NRCS employees may contact them if needed (for clarification of the request, etc).
NRCS is authorized by law to recover the direct costs of providing information to a FOIA requester. A requester may be required to pay fees for searching, reviewing, and copying records. You will be notified in advance if fees will exceed $25.
For fee purposes, the FOIA requires that requesters be placed in one of the following four categories: (1) commercial use requesters; (2) news media, (3) educational institution, noncommercial scientific institution, and (4) all others. Commercial use requesters are charged the full direct cost of search, review and duplication, associated with processing their requests. Scientific, educational, and news media requesters are charged the cost of duplication alone, except that the first 100 pages are provided free of charge. All other requesters are charged the direct costs of search and duplication, except that the first 2 hours of search and the first 100 pages of duplications are free of charge. No review charges are assessed for requesters in this last category.
Specify the fee category in which you feel your request falls. State the maximum amount of fees that you are willing to pay, or include a request for a fee waiver.
The FOIA permits agencies to waive fees if disclosure of the records is in the public interest because it: (a) is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government (Does the record concern the operations or activities of the government? Is disclosure likely to contribute to the public understanding of these operations and activities? Will that contribution be significant?); and (b) is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.
Requests for fee waivers must be fully documented and justified by written explanation. The U.S. Department of Justice, which oversees FOIA compliance throughout the federal government, sets out a six-part test for agencies to follow when evaluating a request for fee waivers.
The FOIA/PA Officer for the Pacific Islands Area is: Jason Peel, Assistant Director for Management and Strategies. Address: USDA NRCS; P.O. Box 50004; Honolulu, Hawaii 96850. Email: Jason.Peel@hi.usda.gov. FAX: (808) 541-2613. Phone: (808) 541-2600 extension 2.