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Ministry’s refusal to disclose sea lice data threatens freedom of information, say environmentalists

The Ministry of Agriculture and Lands’ continued refusal to disclose sea lice infestation data could set a dangerous precedent for future public information requests, environmental groups argue in a submission filed today to B.C.’s information commissioner.

In March 2010, after six years of drawn-out proceedings, the commissioner ruled that the ministry could not conceal 2002-03 fish farm sea lice infestation and disease records from the public.

Now a request from Ecojustice and T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation for the same data for January 2004-March 2010 has been denied on new grounds that the information pertains to an in-progress government study. The data’s release, the ministry maintains, would threaten the study’s priority of publication.

“The government is desperate to find any excuse to block the release of this information, even if it is the same data we’ve already won the right to see for other years,” said Randy Christensen, Ecojustice staff lawyer. “We believe it’s an abuse of the FOI process and it certainly makes it seem like the government is trying to hide something.”

The ministry’s stance on sea lice data is indicative of its soft position on the province’s fish farm industry, the groups said.

“The data was not collected so the government could do a study. It was collected to monitor the fish farms,” said David Lane, executive director of T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation. “This aggressive stifling of the data’s release is really an attempt to shield fish farms from scrutiny.”

Should the commissioner side with the ministry now, it could set a dangerous precedent for future access to information proceedings, Christensen warned.

“Every time someone makes a request for information the government wants to keep secret, what‘s to stop them from claiming they are using that information to pen some study?” he said. “It undermines the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act and allows government far too much control over what information it is obligated to release and when.”

This article is a press release from EcoJustice.