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Environmental groups win in open records case against Corbett

| Monday, July 21, 2014, 11:18 p.m.

Two environmental groups seeking to prove collusion between the energy industry and Gov. Tom Corbett's office won a temporary victory on Monday thanks to an Office of Open Records decision that could reveal correspondence between state officials and outside parties.

Nonprofit groups Earthjustice and the Sierra Club filed a Right-to-Know request seeking correspondence between Corbett's office and industry groups, the Department of Environmental Protection and other agencies concerning proposed air-quality regulations. The groups say those regulations fail to adequately limit emissions from coal plants, the largest contributor to smog-causing pollution in the state.

“We wanted to see if there was any discussions with industry that were not part of the public record in drafting and reviewing this plan,” said Tom Schuster, senior Pennsylvania representative for the Sierra Club.

After receiving the request in mid-April, the governor's office initially limited its response to correspondence involving 13 employees, not including Corbett.

On appeal, the Office of Open Records found the administration interpreted the request too narrowly, said Terry Mutchler, the office's executive director.

“If there's a request they think is too broad or don't understand, the best thing to do is consult with the requester to get them to narrow the request,” she said.

It also did not make its case for withholding records under exemptions including attorney-client privilege. Corbett's office has 30 days to release the correspondence, or appeal the decision in Commonwealth Court.

Patrick Henderson, Corbett's deputy chief of staff and energy executive, said the governor's office is reviewing the decision.

Henderson said DEP's Bureau of Air Quality, which developed the rule, is unaware of special considerations the Sierra Club alleges.

Henderson said whittling down the scope of the search was done to focus on members of the 60-person staff whose correspondence would involve the policy and make the request easier to process.

Henderson said the environmental groups focused on a political agenda, instead of reaching out to have a conversation with the governor's office.

“All of this, at the end of the day, has to pass muster with the Environmental Protection Agency,” Henderson said. “It's not like we could backslide or lessen protection in Pennsylvania.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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