IRE denied dam inspection records since 2002; PATRIOT Act cited

Kathleen Cullinan | Freedom of Information | Quicklink | June 25, 2008

In its beaver-like stockpiling of government data, handy for quick dispensation to journalists,  the non-profit group Investigative Reporters and Editors has for years kept updated copies of one National Inventory of Dams.

In it: the locations of dams, their proximity to populous places and the results of recent safety inspections.

But this month, when floods and breached levies dominated the news out of the Midwest, and the The Des Moines Register turned to the IRE Database Library for a recent inspection dataset, the paper was out of luck.

Turns out  the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped releasing the dam data six years ago, citing the USA PATRIOT Act and national security concerns. As Editor & Publisher reports, IRE has asked for the inventory every year since then, to no avail.

"With all of the problems with the flooding, the information would be very useful," James Wilkerson, data editor for The Register, told E&P. "It makes it hard for the public to understand how these dams are maintained." 

IRE lamented the loss of the dataset on its blog: "Journalists, as a result, had a tougher time providing the public with broader context as they reported the day’s news about flooding. Bigger questions like “how safe is the dam in your town?” obviously can still be posed, but getting at a real objective answer is now more difficult."

After the deadly bridge in Minneapolis last summer, E&P notes, IRE had and handed out to reporters comparable records on bridge inspections nationwide.

For its part, IRE says it plans to keep pushing for the dam data.