FOIA’s worst environmental offenders

Our Earth Day round-up of the most wasteful agencies in public records

Written by JPat Brown
Edited by Michael Morisy

As I am happy to tell anyone who will listen, and several more who won’t, envelopes are the worst part of working at MuckRock. They say nothing that couldn’t have been said in email, they’re infuriatingly time consuming to scan and process, and you have to take them seriously in case somebody snuck a “respond to this in five days or we’ll close your request immediately” letter in something post-marked six days ago. They exist soley to contribute as little as possible and then be cataloged. They are the quantum particles of pointless bureaucracy.

They’re also a huge waste – in an age where we are routinely asked to not print things if we can help it, government agencies see nothing wrong with single-siding off a few thousand “yeah, still working on it” letters and cramming them in a mailbox at fifty sense of postage a piece.

So, in the spirit of Earth Day, we decided to fight back - we ran through the stats to identify FOIA’s worst wastrels, and now we’re ready to engage in a healthy bit of envelope shaming. System’s simple - we checked out which agencies had sent us the most mailed communications (MCs), and that ran that against the number of total requests we’ve received. For context, let’s take a good agency, like, say, the EPA:

Environmental Protection Agency - 15 MCs

Request to MC Ratio: .20

Carbon Footprint: Faintest Imprint of a Birkenstock

Nice practicing what you preach there, EPA. Now go out and regulate something.

So, without further ado, here’s the public record’s most profligate:

5: National Security Agency - 353 MCs

Request to MC Ratio: .93

Carbon Footprint: Men’s Width Extra Wide New Balance

The NSA is the only one of the top five who actually generated fewer MCs than requests - it was tempting to let them off with a technicality, but then we remember about that massive energy-guzzling data center they built, and decided to leave them here on principle.

4. New York City Police Department - 364 MCs

Request to MC Ratio: 1.74

Carbon Footprint: Size 13 Jackboot

The only city-level agency in the running, the NYPD’s infuriating policy of only accepting snail mailed requests put them ahead of federal notable outfits such as the IRS (141 MCs), the FDA (103 MCs) and NARA (66 MCs). Boston Police, the second-place local level wastrel, was nowhere close with a mere 57 MCs. With stats like that, it’s no wonder the CIA keeps confusing them for an intelligence agency.

4. Drug Enforcement Administration - 386 MCs

Request to MC Ratio: 2.07

Carbon Footprint: A Hemp Shoe You Could Sit In

The DEA was the clear winner (well, loser) in the Request to MC Ration, generating over twice as many mailed communications as it had requests. Guess with all those states legalizing marijuana, you gotta find some way to pass the time.

2. Central Intelligence Agency - 630 MCs

Request to MC Ratio: 1.26

Carbon Footprint: Wingtip the Size of Volkswagen Beetle (With Spring-loaded Knife in It)

We’ve griped at length about the CIA’s infamous fax machine, but their love of the leisurely snail-mailed Glomar makes them one of the most aneurysm-inducing agencies out there. Assuming this is all part of a plot to assassinate the MuckRock staff via slow-release hypertension, all we ask is that they find a more eco-friendly way to do it.

1. Federal Bureau of Investigation - 2,686 MCs

Request to MC Ratio: 1.33

Carbon Footprint: Black Shiny FBI Shoes That Can Be Seen From Space

There could only be one. The FBI’s truly bizarre policy of responding to requests with an immediate emailed confirmation of receipt, followed by a mailed acknowledgement, followed by a fee status letter, followed by a processing track letter, followed by a clarification letter, all in separate envelopes all postmarked the same day, all while sending emailed status updates that contain no pertinent information whatsoever, all but guaranteed them the top spot. Way to go, guys - Hoover would be proud.

But wait, we’re not done yet - we still have more no-prize to hand out.

Dishonorable mention

Most mailed pages - U.S. Department of State, 12,152 pages

Did you really think we’d let them off without a mention? While the others may have State beat on variety, nobody comes close in depth - they’ve sent box after box of why-aren’t-these-digitized-yet-oh-no-are-those-staples-every-three-pages cables, for a total that’s well over how much paper the average office worker uses in a year. State, we’d happy to scan some of these for you if you’d like - we know you need the help.


Have a great Earth Day, and please, think before you print this article.