An environmental law firm in Wisconsin is suing the Department of Natural Resources. They say the agency didn’t hand over public records that it should have related to the city of Racine’s plan to divert water from Lake Michigan.
That water is meant for Foxconn — which says it needs 7 million gallons a day for their plant in Mount Pleasant.
Midwest Environmental Advocates challenged Racine’s water diversion request in May. Now, they’re saying the DNR hasn’t handed over all the documents they should have in response to a
related open records request.
MEA filed a formal open records request in August asking for DNR emails regarding the diversion plan.
The city of Racine needed to get permission to divert water from Lake Michigan because Mount Pleasant, where Foxconn is building their LCD manufacturing plant, is just outside the boundaries of the Great Lakes Compact. That compact dictates the range of areas that can divert water from the lakes.
MEA’s lawyer on the case, Tressie Kamp, notes that Wisconsin has a pretty strong open records law.
“We almost always need to do some sort of open records request,” Kamp says. “Basically just to ensure our client, and by extension the general public, has all of the information they’re entitled to”
There are some exceptions to what kind of information is subject to open records law. For example, the DNR told MEA in this case that the emails they withheld were either drafts or protected by attorney client privilege.
But Kamp says it’s not that simple.
“The agency does have the burden of proving that records actually fall within those exceptions,” Kamp says. “Whether it’s DNR or another agency the public is entitled to have assurance that they have all the documentation that is or should be public.”
Kamp says that means the DNR needs to give MEA more information about the missing documents.
“Some of our partner law firms in the past have been able to get information about approximately how many documents were withheld,” Kamp says. “In this case we have zero understanding. Was there one document? Was there a hundred? Was there even more? And we also don’t have any understanding about the general subject of those documents.”
Kamp says in cases when the information was withheld due to attorney client privilege, for example, the agency could give them pieces of the document that aren’t privileged, or even a summary of the document.
She says that would help them better understand what they don’t have in front of them.
“Sometimes that can be just as important as knowing the files that you were provided,” Kamp says.
DNR spokesperson Jim Dick declined a request for comment.