Public Records Privatized by National Security Fear
When Teton County Commissioner Bill Paddleford heard a researcher discuss the possibility that part of Jackson Lake Dam could liquefy in a large earthquake, he was both worried and miffed.
For two years, Paddleford said, he had been after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to give county officials information on the safety of the dam and any potential threats to the structure. Local officials wanted it as part of their emergency planning.
Agency officials maintained that the dam, a short distance upstream from the resort community of Jackson, was safe, but Paddleford said they refused to release specifics.
After hearing a speech mentioning the risk to the dam, given by a professor of seismology at UC Santa Barbara, Paddleford was convinced that county officials weren’t getting the whole story and that the Bureau of Reclamation was being unreasonable.
The dispute highlights a problem faced by some local governments and groups since the terrorist attacks of 2001: It isn’t just the general public that is finding it more difficult to get information from state and federal governments about dams, electric utilities or other structures in their areas -- whether for safety, environmental or political concerns.
Although the Bureau of Reclamation did release what it called a “nonsensitive” version of an engineering report, Paddleford said that did not fully address his concerns.
“Everyone knows a dam will fail, but at what point?” said Paddleford, who was defeated in his bid for reelection last month. “When should we start looking at evacuating certain areas? When, as a county, do we start looking at those issues?
“I’m accusing no one of wrongdoing, but I want assurances it’s safe,” he added of his reasons for seeking more information about the dam and an independent review of the report. “I’ve gotten, ‘The dam is safe,’ but to what degree?”
Since the 2001 attacks, government agencies have changed the type of information available for the public and the manner in which it is shared. Some have taken documents or drawings off the Web, while others have changed the classification of some records -- marking them as internal, rather than readily available.
In some instances, documents like the full engineering report for the Jackson dam may be reviewed by select officials, who then must sign a nondisclosure agreement.
The dam is about seven miles east of the Teton fault, which geologists say is overdue for a quake. It could produce a temblor up to magnitude 7.5, experts say, with ground shaking under the dam that would create forces equivalent to a magnitude 9 earthquake.
Should the dam fail, officials say water would eventually inundate some small towns along the river, including Moran and Wilson. The resort town of Jackson, population about 8,800, sits high enough above the river that officials predict that it would not be flooded.
Reclamation officials insist that there is no significant danger posed by the Jackson Lake Dam. They say they took the unusual step of posting online parts of the highly technical engineering report, also known as a seismic risk analysis, to quell what they see as unfounded fears about the dam’s safety.
They also allowed the county engineer to review the entire document, normally unavailable for “public consumption.” Those who need to know the information, including the state engineer, have been allowed to see it, agency officials said.
The Jackson dam report is not alone.
About two years ago, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission removed from its website a document showing that officials had found voids within the aging Milltown Dam on the Clark Fork River, just upstream from Missoula, Mont. County commissioners complained, and an agency official assured the panel that it would receive information about the structure. The local environmental health supervisor said the information had been provided.
Patrice McDermott of the American Library Assn. said there was growing concern from groups like hers about what she saw as an increase in agencies withholding records as “sensitive security information,” particularly in the last 18 months.
A 2002 Justice Department memorandum suggested to federal agencies that they consider the need to safeguard information “that could be misused to harm the security of our nation or threaten public safety.”
McDermott contends that officials have “taken the leap from safeguarding information to withholding it.... We’re seeing a rising tide of agencies doing this.”
But agency officials say they’re in a difficult position, forced to balance the public’s right to know with issues of public safety and security.
Paul Johnston, spokesman with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said he was unaware of any problems arising from that agency’s changes. They have included removing from the Web once readily available information such as engineering drawings, and marking as “internal” such information as periodic dam safety inspections, he said.
Information is shared, though, with appropriate officials, including disaster responders, Johnston said.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission now is trying to restore some documents to the Web after removing its entire online document library in October for closer scrutiny, spokeswoman Sue Gagner said. Under stricter guidelines, information that “could be useful or could reasonably be expected to be useful to a terrorist” may be withheld, she said.
There have been complaints, and Gagner said she’s sympathetic. However, “we’ve just become more aware of security concerns, as everybody has, since Sept. 11th, so we’re instituting these reviews.”
States are also aware, and some are taking action.
In Wyoming, lawmakers have updated the state’s public records act to note exceptions for documents that could, among other things, “facilitate the planning of a terrorist attack.”
In Montana, officials say dam inspection reports are available for public inspection but not on the Web. Having such information available to those who ask is a point of concern for officials, including Laurence Siroky, in the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Siroky said there hadn’t been a push to restrict dam safety information, but that could change. Officials are doing a vulnerability assessment of dams regulated by the state.
Some are challenging the new restrictions in court. In 2002, the Utah-based conservation group Living Rivers sued the Bureau of Reclamation over its refusal to release inundation maps for areas below the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams.
The bureau argued that the release could endanger both the dams and the safety of those living downstream, and that disclosure of areas that would be flooded was exempt under the Freedom of Information Act. A federal judge sided with the agency.
Before 9/11, the group’s John Weisheit said, the maps were available to those who asked. He thinks that it was important to sue to “promote civil rights in this country.”
“Dams can and do fail, and will,” Weisheit said. “What’s more important is -- we paid for it. These are all publicly funded programs. Why can’t we know more about the dangers that affect us?”
Diana Cross, spokeswoman for the bureau, said those who needed information to plan or respond had it. She notes that the Teton County engineer has been allowed to see the entire engineering report on Jackson Lake Dam.
“I don’t want to sound impatient, but the dam has been inspected to within an inch of its life,” she said. County officials elsewhere have not been so demanding, and “I don’t think it’s responsible to be unduly scaring people.”
Ralph Archuleta, the UC Santa Barbara professor, said that his work involving ground motion, which Paddleford heard last summer, must be taken in context and that he believed that the Bureau of Reclamation’s basic concern was for public safety. However, Archuleta said he believed that such a complicated matter deserves a “second opinion” by an independent panel of experts.