The cost of one of the first requests for public records from Wyoming environmental regulators since fees have been instituted on requests for emails was overestimated by 81 percent.
A landowners’ group had requested email correspondence regarding a coal mine permit, one of two requests the Powder River Basin Resource Council made earlier this year to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
The first was estimated to cost more than $1,000. The group retracted that request. The second was estimated to cost about $453, accounting for hours of work from various staff, from clerical to experts. The group prepaid $273, the cost above Wyoming’s $180 threshold for charging records.
The actual cost of staff time was just $84.
The entire payment will be refunded, as it falls below the $180 threshold for staff time and/or paper products.
Charging for records was a controversial decision in Wyoming. Though a statewide policy, its adoption at the Department of Environmental Quality over the last year in particular was opposed by groups like the Powder River Basin Resource Council, who argued it would deter regular Wyomingites and small groups or businesses from accessing records that span issues around air and water quality to the impacts of energy development and power production.
Keith Guille, spokesman for the department, said the records fee system is not meant to deter people from seeking information. The department is trying to put more of its paperwork online so that it is more readily available to the public and has an online records request system so that those requests are open to the public as well.
“When it is public record, it is public record, and the public has a right to see it,” Guille said.
But the state is obligated to make sure it is not releasing any information that it should not, meaning it has to look through each correspondence, he said.
“I think our agency is always working to become more and more transparent,” he said. “But we have to follow the rules and regulations. We don’t get to pick and choose which ones we follow.”
Guille said the department was refining its process for estimating costs and had made its best estimate of the amount of time it would take to fulfill the coal mine request.
But it had taken less time than was thought.
Instead of five hours of professional staff time, at $40 an hour, the request required one hour. That alone was a difference of $160. Clerical staff time, which costs $15.50 per hour, cost $170 less than the initial estimate.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council was the first to put in a records requests to the department that was estimated to pass the $180 threshold. The first was a request for records regarding PacifiCorp coal plants.
The second sought correspondence about a proposed coal mine in Sheridan County, the Brook mine. The mine permit was denied after the Powder River Basin Resource Council opposed the first mine plan. The company, Ramaco Coal, is working with the department on another mine proposal.
The estimated cost of the Ramaco records request was $1,000. The group cancelled that request as too expensive.
Shannon Anderson, a lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said she felt agencies were incentivized to overestimate the costs of public records.
It’s easier for an agency like the Department of Environmental Quality to refund a prepaid amount than seek out additional cost from a citizen or group, she said.
But agencies that are erring on the side of caution can end up rebuffing people seeking public records, she added.
“What’s concerning is the deterrent factor,” she explained. “We are glad this one worked out the way it did because we don’t have a budget line for DEQ fees.”
The council is a frequent requester of documents from agencies in the state and is one of few similar groups closely tracking environmental issues in Wyoming.
The Powder River Basin Resource Council considered whether its cancelled request, the one estimated to cost $1,000, should be resubmitted given how much less their other request ended up costing.
Ultimately they did not, and they’re hoping the agency comes up with a system that makes requests for email correspondence cheaper.
Anderson remains unconvinced that these email searches are as time- and labor-intensive as the tab would suggest. The request that cost $84 is proof of that, she said.
“What this request also shows, of course, is agencies can respond to these requests with fairly minimal staff time,” she said. “Yeah, there is a lot of emails, but it’s public records. You do a search and send it.”