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Sunshine in the dark

Law keeps people in the dark about community dangers

Law keeps people in the dark about community dangers

March 12, 2006|By DAVID MANN

Somewhere in Maryland, a 950-foot long dam is in imminent danger of failing.

According to the state's Department of Environment, the dam is poorly maintained. There are cracks and sinkholes on and around its surface, as well as obvious signs of slumping, seepage, erosion and animal burrowing. The state notes that if this particular dam were to collapse, lives probably would be lost.

Residential, commercial and industrial buildings would sustain serious damage. And critical infrastructure such as roads and utilities could be washed out.

Such information can be found on the latest state inspection report for the dam. The document can be obtained through a Public Information Act request.

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But those who live near this potentially life-threatening structure might never know about it until it's too late.

Any information that could be used to identify this structure has been redacted from the state's report.

Thick black lines cover the name of the dam and the county in which it sits.

Similarly, the state doesn't want the public to know who owns the dam, the river it controls, its latitude and longitude, its height or even the year it was constructed. But this is not just one isolated slumping structure.

At least 14 other dams are in similarly bad shape.

The state lists some of them as being in "poor" condition and others in "unsafe" condition.

Some are classified as "significant" risks, meaning that loss of life is possible in the event of failure. Others are classified as "high" risks, indicating that loss of life is probable.

But the use of black lines covering up identifying information is consistent throughout the reports. The state will not disclose any identifying information about the dams in question.




It's legal



And because of a 2002 change in Maryland law, that's legal.

Changes to the Public Information Act, passed as emergency action after 9/11, make it legal for public agencies to deny access to records that they say could jeopardize security.

Structural records of mass transit systems, water systems or public buildings can all be denied under the law.

Plans, blueprints or - as in the case of the dams - specific sites of buildings are no longer required to be made available for public examination.

According to Kevin Enright, spokesman for the Maryland Attorney General's Office, the legislation allows an agency to deny requests for records that would jeopardize the security of a building or public facility. Records that could be used in planning a terrorist attack or endanger life can also be denied.

According to Richard McIntire, spokesperson for the Department of Environment, the dam inspection sheets fall into those categories. The documents had to be redacted for the safety of the general public, he said.

"It's a post-9/11 world," he said.

That post 9-11 world has resulted in a lot of information being kept secret. If record keepers believe that allowing access to a particular public record is contrary to public interest, they may deny access, according to the legislation.

Records concerning hazardous material storage facilities, arenas, stadiums, sewer and water treatment plants can all be denied public inspection. Managers of such buildings do not even have to disclose the type of surveillance equipment or security systems used.




Hush-hush plans



Any plans made to prevent or respond to an emergency can be denied, as well.

Parents, for example, are no longer required to have access to school evacuation plans.

Federal regulations require that school systems have an emergency plan. However, the same law the Department of Environment uses to hide the locations of unsafe dams, the school system uses to keep evacuation plans secret.

The Carroll County Public Schools system has a two-tiered plan in place.

The school system will allow access to its generic manual of emergency procedures, which every school in the system would use, but will not share an individual school's evacuation plans, said Larry Faries, the system's coordinator of security.

The system has been proactive in developing plans in the event of an emergency and doesn't want to allow the wrong people to view them, he said.

Charles Ecker, the school system's superintendent, defends the policy.

"We don't want to tell the bad guys what we're going to do," Ecker said.

After 9/11 - and to a lesser extent the 2002 sniper attacks - the school system began guarding the policy more closely, he said. "We became very protective," he said. "We are doing it because it's for the safety of everybody."

But the plan is not such a closely guarded secret that no one knows it.

While a parent couldn't walk into a school and view it, Ecker said, the average student is well aware of it. Each school holds drills several times a year.

Faries said no one has ever asked to view the system's emergency evacuation plan, although plans have been shared with law enforcement and fire departments.

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