Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Overview of USGS FOIA Process

This overview is not an in-depth or step-by-step review of our entire process.  For additional information, please review the DOI FOIA regulation, 43 C.F.R. § Part 2; 383 DM 15, FOIA Handbook (specifically the Appendix), or contact the USGS FOIA Public Liaison.

A. USGS FOIA Program Receives a FOIA Request

  1. We read the entire request to ensure the request clearly identifies the following; see 43 C.F.R. §2.5 and 383 DM 15, FOIA Handbook, section 5.3 and the Appendix:
    1. Reasonable description of records:
      1. Date, title or name, author, recipient, and subject of record(s);
      2. Office that created the records;
      3. Timeframe of requested records;
      4. Any other information to assist USGS to search for records.
    2. Requester explicitly states willingness to pay FOIA processing fees; 43 C.F.R. §2.6.
    3. If records pertain to another person, request should include consent or death certificate of the person; 43 C.F.R. §2.9.
  2. Determine if requester asked for Expedited Processing; see 43 C.F.R. §2.10.
    1. Resolve requests for Expedited Processing within 10 calendar days, see 43 C.F.R. §2.20(d).
    2. If necessary, assign a FOIA Tracking Number and send an Acknowledgment to the requester (described in Section B below) and inform the requester that we are reviewing their request for Expedited Processing. Note: We do not send requests for expedited processing to the Office of Solicitor for a legal review.
  3. Determine if requester asked for a Fee Waiver; see 43 C.F.R. §2.45.
    1. If so, the requester must explain the following:
      1. Release of records is in the public’s interest and likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of government operations or activities;
      2. Records are not primarily in the requester’s commercial interest;
    2. If the requester asked for a fee waiver, we need to determine if the requester provided all of the justification to grant the fee waiver. If not, then we may deny the fee waiver.
    3. We send all Fee Waiver Denials to the Office of Solicitor for a legal review, see 43 C.F.R. §2.23.
  4. We may contact you if certain key pieces of information is missing, if the scope of the request is unclear, or if the request is not a FOIA request (e.g. a Privacy Act request or a query). See 383 DM 15, FOIA Handbook, section 4.5 and the Appendix for an explanation about queries.
  5. If the request was mistakenly delivered to USGS, the USGS FOIA Office will reroute it to the appropriate office.
  6. If the FOIA requester has failed to pay FOIA processing fees in the past, the FOIA requester must settle the debt before USGS processes the new FOIA request. See 383 DM 15, FOIA Handbook, section 7.4 and the Appendix XIV.

B. Enter Request in the Department of Interior’s Electronic FOIA Tracking System (EFTS), Assign FOIA Tracking Number, Send Acknowledgment

  1. Typically within one workday of receiving the request, we will log the request into EFTS and obtain the appropriate USGS tracking number (USGS-20XX-00XXX).
  2. Assign the request to the appropriate processing track.
  3. Assign the requester in the appropriate FOIA processing fee category.
  4. Acknowledge FOIA Request:
    1. If we determine that it will take longer than 10 workdays to process, we must send the requester a written acknowledgment. See 43 C.F.R. §2.21(b) and 383 DM 15, FOIA Handbook, Appendix, section III.C.
    2. Uses the Department’s Sample Language for FOIA Responses to draft the Acknowledgment and modifies the Acknowledgment to fit the circumstances of the request. The Acknowledgment may include the following:
      1. USGS FOIA Tracking Number;
      2. Explanation of Unusual Circumstances and instructions about limiting the scope of the request;
      3. If the scope is unclear, request clarification and provide a deadline to clarify the request;
      4. Approve or Deny Expedited Processing (and provide appeal rights if applicable);
      5. Inform the requester of the processing track and anticipated completion date. May add instructions to limit the scope of the request;
      6. Approve fee waiver request or inform that we are considering the request;
      7. List the fee threshold that the requester agreed to pay; or, if omitted in the request, ask for the requester’s willingness to pay FOIA processing fees and provide deadline to provide willingness to pay fees;
      8. Inform the requester of the processing track and anticipated completion date. May add instructions to limit the scope of the request;
      9. Include Office of Government Information Services language and contact information for our FOIA Public Liaison;
      10. Name and contact information of the USGS FOIA Team Member who sent the Acknowledgment.
    3. Email the Acknowledgment in the body of an email or as a separate document, to the requester. We send the Acknowledgment from the FOIA Inbox ( to correspond to the FOIA requester and always include the signature block of the USGS FOIA team member who sends the Acknowledgment.
    4. Subject Lines are standardized in our emails and will include the FOIA number at the beginning of the email’s subject line (e.g. “USGS FOIA 20XX-00XXX – Acknowledgment of Your Request”).

C. Notifying USGS Component (Record Holder, Program Office, Science Center, etc.,) of the Request and to Search for Record

  1. Once the request is perfected, we will coordinate a record search with the Program Office, Subject Matter Expert, record holder, for responsive records. See 383 DM 15, FOIA Handbook, sections 5.3 and 5.6 and the Appendix.
  2. Notify internal USGS component(s) of the FOIA request:
    1. Prepare the Notification using the USGS Notification Template
    2. Email the Notification in the body of an email to the internal USGS component(s) that may have responsive records, using our internal email system.
      1. We send the Notification from the FOIA Inbox ( to correspond with (the) internal USGS component(s).
      2. We include the signature block of the USGS FOIA team member who sends the Notification.
      3. We use standardized Subject Lines in our emails and will include the FOIA number to the beginning of the email’s subject line (e.g. “USGS FOIA 20XX-00XXX – Notification of New FOIA Request, Request to Search for Records”).
    3. We notify our Office of Communications and Publishing when we receive FOIA requests for the following matters/subjects:
      1. Employee Relations, EEO, Harassment, etc.;
      2. Scientific Integrity/Misconduct Investigations or Inquiries;
      3. Inspector General Investigations (even if investigated by a USGS Region/office);
      4. Suppression of Science claims;
      5. Any request from a Congressional member on behalf of constituents;
      6. Litigation matters (including FOIA litigation);
      7. ** any other matter that the USGS FOIA Program thinks may generate media interest or claims of loss of scientific integrity.
  3. If the Component(s) inform the USGS FOIA Program that their records search will exceed the FOIA processing fee threshold that the requester agreed to pay, then the assigned USGS FOIA analyst will contact the requester to discuss the request and the following options with the requester:
    1. Increase the dollar amount that the requester is willing to pay;
    2. Conduct a record search only up to the amount that the requester agreed to pay (e.g., if agreed to pay $75.00 and the individual searching is a GS-13, we will only search for one hour and twenty minutes);
    3. Amend the scope of the request to fit into the established FOIA processing fee threshold;
    4. Withdraw the request.

    Note: We will not search for records until the FOIA processing fee issue(s) is/are resolved.

  4. If there are no FOIA processing fee related issues or if the fee issues were resolved, then the component(s) will search for records and send the records, if located, to the USGS FOIA Program. If no records are located, the component(s) will send the USGS FOIA Program a No Records response.

D. No Records Response

  1. If we do not locate records, we will prepare a No Records Response using the Department’s Sample Language for FOIA Responses.
  2. Depending on the circumstances, we may charge FOIA processing fees when we do not locate records. See 43 C.F.R. §2.41 and section E.4. below.

E. Reviewing the Records and Processing the Request

  1. USGS will review the records and process the requests on a “first-in, first-out basis” within each processing track. See 383 DM 15, FOIA Handbook, sections 8.5 and the Appendix section V. and VII.
    1. If necessary, we may notify the requester that we need to change their processing track (e.g. from Normal to Complex, Complex to Exceptional and Voluminous);
    2. Will provide the requester with their projected place in line in the new processing track and the revised anticipated completion date;
    3. Will provide the requester with the opportunity to narrow / limit the scope of their request to remain in the original processing track;
    4. Will prepare a Change in Processing Track correspondence using Sample Language for FOIA Responses, see the Multitrack Processing - Revising Track Placement and 43 C.F.R. §2.14 and §2.15.
  2. Reviewing the Records for the following:
    1. Verify the records are USGS records. If not, will refer the records to the appropriate DOI bureau, agency or department;
    2. That the records respond to the request;
    3. If the records are protected by one or more of the nine FOIA exemptions. If Exemption 4 may apply, we will coordinate a submitter notice;
    4. The potential for a discretionary release;
    5. Determine if another bureau, agency or department has equity in the responsive records. If so, request a consultation from the other bureau, agency, or department. See 43 C.F.R. §2.13.
  3. Prepare for Disclosure/Nondisclosure of the records. See 383 DM 15, FOIA Handbook, Appendix section VIII.
    1. Prepare response letter if releasing the records in full and send the unredacted records to the requester. Typically, we will email our response letter and the records to the requester, unless the requester specifically asked for the records in paper form.
    2. Prepare package to send to the Office of the Solicitor if withholding the records in full or in part under one or more of the nine FOIA exemptions. See 43 C.F.R. §2.23 and FOIA Handbook, Appendix section VIII.C.
    3. If possible, we will provide Interim/Batch Releases to the requester. These Interim/Batch Releases will include records that we release in full or in part and we will coordinate a legal review with the Office of the Solicitor prior to sending partially redacted records under one or more of the nine FOIA exemptions.
  4. Charging or Not Charging FOIA Processing Fees
    1. Charging applicable fees depends on numerous facts and circumstances. See our FAQs and the Department of Justice (DOJ), Office of Information Policy’s (OIP) Guidance:
      1. Prohibition on Assessing Certain Fees When the FOIA’s Time Limits Are Not Met
      2. Decision Tree for Assessing Fees
    2. If fees are less than $50.00 we will not charge the requester any FOIA processing fees. See 43 C.F.R. §2.37(g).
    3. If we can charge fees, we will prepare a Non-Reimbursable Request Form for FOIA and send the completed form to the USGS Office of Accounting and Financial Management (OAFM), Receivables Management Section (RMS).
      1. OAFM/RMS will send the requester a Bill for Collection to pay the FOIA processing fees.
      2. If the requester is a commercial entity, OAFM/RMS requires the USGS FOIA Program add the company’s Tax ID Number to the Non-Reimbursable Request Form for FOIA. We request the company’s Tax ID Number if we anticipate charging FOIA processing fees or when we provide the requester with a FOIA processing fee estimate.

F. Providing Records and Closing the Request

  1. Receives Legal Review from Office of the Solicitor
  2. Applies Redactions to the electronic records

    Note: We encrypt the records that contain sensitive commercial/financial information or personally identifiable information (PII)
  3. Sends response and records using electronic means (e.g. email or file transfer protocol (FTP)) or Burns Records to Disc and Mails Disc. Sends paper records to the requester if the requester has asked for hard copies. (e.g., someone who does not have internet access)
  4. Closes Request in EFTS
  5. Complete record and file request according to the NARA General Records Schedule 4.2 - Information Access and Protection Records

G. Proactive Release of Records in FOIA Library

  1. USGS proactively provides a vast amount of information to the public. See our What USGS products are already publicly available? FAQ.
  2. FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 codified the “Rule of 3”. If the processed request was the third request processed for the same information, we will post the records in our FOIA Library.
  3. We will analyze the records and determine if they meet the “Frequently Requested” Records definition, and if so, we will post them in our FOIA Library. See DOJ OIP’s Proactive Disclosure of Non-Exempt Agency Information: Making Information Available Without the Need to File a FOIA Request and Implementation Checklist for OIP Guidance on Proactive Disclosures of Non-Exempt Agency Information.
  4. We will review our released records and determine whether or not we will post them in our FOIA Library, as is, or if we need to further redact the information to make a public disclosure (e.g. redacting first party records that remove first party information).
  5. We will routinely review the FOIA Library to ensure that we are proactively providing information to the public. We welcome feedback from the public to ensure that our FOIA Library meets the public’s needs.

H. OAFM/RMS will Notify FOIA Program when Bill is Paid. The DOI EFTS will Notify FOIA Program when Bill is not Paid.

  1. We will update EFTS when the bill has been paid (see E. 4. c. 1).
  2. If the bill is not paid, the requester will move to the Delinquent Requester List. FOIA Handbook, section 7.4 and Appendix section XIV.