Safety of bridges, dams and mines: an FOI issue

Monday, March 17, 2008

WASHINGTON — With last August’s Minnesota Interstate 35W bridge collapse still fresh in the public mind, now is the time to get people interested in infrastructure safety, a reporter who covered the aftermath told an audience at FOI Day.

But interest in the subject may not be enough if access to the information is too limited, said participants in the March 14 panel discussion, “Infrastructure Safety & Public Information.”

The panelists said the American people needed to know whether their bridges, dams and mines are safe, and without adequate information, they can’t apply pressure to keep the nation’s infrastructure properly maintained.

Pam Louwagie, a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter who covered the I-35W bridge disaster, said her newspaper was able to gather basic information about the state’s bridges from a national database and quickly publish a large graphic listing the worst bridges. Detailed information on the state’s bridges was harder to come by, however.

Panel moderator Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, noted that within a few days of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the Department of Homeland Security asked the states to keep “an even tighter grip” on bridge information.

“Why was I not surprised?” asked Dalglish, who before she began her work with the Virginia-based RCFP was a 20-year Twin Cities resident and reporter.

Louwagie said the only bridge the newspaper could get detailed information for was the I-35W bridge — because it was already down.

‘You can’t hide the bridge or dam’
The potential for terrorism should keep in-depth plans such as blueprints for bridges and dams off-limits to the public, said Brian Pallasch of the American Society of Civil Engineers. But more basic information that rates the safety of bridges and dams is essential to the public and to lawmakers who determine funding for infrastructure maintenance.

Pallasch said “some people don’t want to talk” about infrastructure issues for fear terrorists might see a potential target. But, he asked, “What’re you gonna do, hide it? … You can’t hide the bridge or dam to make it less of a terror target.”

Ted Gup, Case Western Reserve University professor and author of Nation of Secrets, argued that realistic risk-assessment is missing when government officials justify limiting access to infrastructure data because of a terrorist threat. “We don’t think real clearly when it comes to fear,” said the former reporter for Washington Post and Time.

What really needs to be asked, he said, is “what is the greater threat: the bridge that isn’t maintained or a terrorist going after the bridge?” He said the risk of death because of an improperly maintained bridge is “about a thousand times more likely” than a terrorist strike on that bridge.

Pallasch said the I-35W bridge was known to be structurally deficient for at least 17 years before last August’s collapse. He said Republican Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty had vetoed transportation legislation for the two years before the collapse that could have helped to fix the bridge.

He added that “25% of the nation’s bridges … are at some level structurally deficient or functionally obsolete” and noted that bridge repair is expensive.

The federal government gives the states $4 billion a year for bridge repair, Pallasch said, but states are allowed to use the money for other things. More public attention on the dangers of improperly maintained bridges might translate into that money’s going toward crucial infrastructure needs, he said.

Pallasch also focused on the nation’s dams, saying that “many people live near dams” without knowing that they do, unaware of the risk that high-hazard dams may fail.

Does the public care?
Dalglish asked the panelists if the public really cared about infrastructure information.

Ellen Smith, owner and operator of the newsletter Mine Safety and Health News, said that yes, at the very least miners and their families care about mine safety and “want to know what’s going on in those mines.”

Recent disasters in which miners have lost their lives, such as in the Sago and Crandall Canyon mines, also focus public attention on the crucial industry, Smith said. After all, she said, “you have no infrastructure without mining … you have nothing.”

A powerful tool for getting information for the public is a 1977 federal mining law, Smith said.

The Mine Safety and Health Act is even better that the federal Freedom of Information Act, she said, because it goes further than FOIA in specifically saying that certain information “shall be made available for public inspection.” This provision was put in, she said, because the bill’s authors recognized that an informed public can mean safer mines.

It’s crucial for miners to know what’s happening in the mines, Smith said. She asked what might have happened differently if the miners at Crandall Canyon last August had known about e-mails exchanged between the mining company and government officials in which the company asked and received permission not to report frequent outbursts of gas, coal and rock in the mine.

Smith said she found out about the e-mails from a Senate Labor Commission report released earlier this month. “I would never have gotten those through FOIA,” she said.

Miners “count on government inspectors to save their lives,” Smith said. “We count on the Department of Transportation to make our bridges safe.”

The panelists also spoke of the importance of knowing how government officials make their decisions, not just what those decisions are. Gup said the secrecy involved in the information-gathering and deliberations of President Bush’s Energy Task Force “is the classic example” of the problem of seeing the result without the process.

“It was the process we couldn’t see,” he said. “And it was everything there. … Process is everything in a democracy.” The public must be able to question government officials before the decisions are made, he said, he said, adding that both political parties are equally at fault in not sharing crucial information.

Gup encouraged journalists to question the integrity of public officials if they don’t let the public in on the decision-making process.

Smith said she wasn’t questioning government officials’ integrity; “I just want to know honestly how they reached their decision.

“That’s the backbone of a great society,” she said. “We need to have open and honest debates and be honest about how you reached the decision.”

Feingold receives ALA’s Madison Award
At the FOI Day lunch, the American Library Association, which has been a cooperating partner in the conference since its inception, announced that Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., had won the 2008 James Madison Award.

The ALA presents the award “to honor those who, at the national level, have championed, protected, and promoted public access to government information,” the group said in a news release.

“His work in the United States Senate to promote the public’s right to know has been extensive and effective,” said ALA President Loriene Roy in opening luncheon remarks. “In short, he has put his money where his mouth is on open government legislation and his record reflects just that.”

Feingold supported the OPEN Government Act of 2007, and has introduced or co-sponsored several open-government bills, the ALA said, including the National Security Letters Reform Act of 2007; the Lobbying, Ethics, and Earmarks Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007; and the Federal Agency Data Mining Reporting Act of 2007.

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