A post-Sept. 11 crackdown on data about dams and dikes has frustrated journalists trying to warn of potential disasters.
From the Spring 2007 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 18.
By Andrea Grossman
If the Wolf Creek Dam in Kentucky were to burst, the government’s own estimates say the water could damage thousands of buildings and cause $2 billion worth of damage in Nashville, Tenn., alone.
So it is no surprise that media outlets in Tennessee and Kentucky wanted to post the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood maps online so that residents would be aware of potential risks to their property — and to themselves.
But when The (Nashville) Tennessean and The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal first requested digital copies of the maps in the fall of 2006, the Army Corps refused to release them, saying the release would threaten homeland security.
“I don’t understand how they can deny the information when it is a question of safety,” Tennessean reporter Anne Paine said.
The Army Corps eventually posted the maps online in March of this year. But the situation has been repeated elsewhere around the country as journalists seeking information about their local dams, dikes and levees are stymied by a post-Sept. 11 crackdown on maps and other information deemed a potential boon to terrorists.
In the Wolf Creek Dam case, the Army Corps — which oversees the nation’s water resources — initially placed paper copies of the maps in local libraries but refused to release them electronically.
However, after a local college publicly released the maps, which The Tennessean had previously posted online after receiving them through another source, the Army Corps finally posted the digital copies on its Web site. Army Corps officials said among other things they were worried the maps in circulation had mistakes or were old versions.
The Army Corps initially withheld the information as part of a policy created after Sept. 11 that prohibited the release of flood maps and other information regarding dams, dikes and other water control structures, according to Bill Peoples, a spokesman for the Army Corps’ Nashville office.
“Initially, when we got a request for those maps, basing our decision on the policy, they were not to be released,” Peoples said.
One of the first major cases that serves as a precedent for the withholding of maps occurred shortly after Sept. 11.
In September 2001, Living Rivers, an environmental group based in Utah and Arizona, put in a Freedom of Information Act request for the Bureau of Reclamation’s flood maps in order to find out what would happen if the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona were to burst. Living Rivers hoped that the information presented to them would show the need for decommissioning certain dams, as keeping them running in a faulty state would cost more and be less effective.
In addition to informing the public with the information regarding the consequences of a faulty dam, the organization also wanted to test how strict government agencies were with certain information after Sept. 11. Its request was soon denied.
“Everyone knows what can happen when a dam is faulty,” said John Weisheit, the Living Rivers conservation director. “It’s not going to help terrorists.”
The flood maps, he said, “don’t tell you how to destroy” a dam. “They just tell you what will happen if it breaks.”
The outcome of the case was a setback for the public’s right to know information that could affect it.
A federal judge in Utah upheld the government’s refusal to release the information under the FOIA exemption for law enforcement records that could be “reasonably expected” to endanger someone’s life. Living Rivers decided not to file an appeal.
The decision has been cited by government agencies as the reason to withhold certain documents.
‘Seeking to do harm’
One case affected by the Living Rivers decision involved The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post and its inability to obtain an electronic database that would reveal historical information on the faults in the Herbert Hoover Dike in Florida.
Reporter Robert P. King initially asked for the database in December 2005, several weeks after Hurricane Wilma hit Florida.
King had written a story in September 2005 titled, “If a Katrina hit here. . .,” comparing the similarities in terrain between New Orleans and South Florida.
There was historical precedent for a catastrophic storm in the area. In 1928, a hurricane hit the area, causing Lake Okeechobee to flood the surrounding towns. The flooding killed more than 2,500 people — making it the second-deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history — and prompted the construction of the dike.
Months after King’s query, the Army Corps informed him that he would need to submit a formal FOIA request. Army Corps officials then informed King that they would be unable to release the requested information because it could harm homeland security. They cited the Living Rivers case.
King said Corps officials told him the release of this information would “only help those who are seeking to do harm.”
A state-funded engineering study later illustrated the potential need for residents to know about the dike’s past failures. The report, released in May 2006, said the dike posed a “grave and imminent danger” to residents and cataloged numerous leaks and erosion of the dike.
King had also requested flood maps showing what would happen if the dike failed. Though the Post had received many of the same maps from another source and posted them on its Web site along with King’s September 2005 story, the Corps resisted the request for months, only releasing the maps in August.
However, the Army Corps continues to withhold the database with leak information.
Nanciann Regalado, a spokeswoman for the Jacksonville, Fla., Army Corps, said the database “has very specific information — as in GPS locations — of the areas of the dike where there is high vulnerability to a breach.”
With the government reluctant to release information about dams and other structures, concerns from journalists and the public alike have mounted, questioning what would happen if another Katrina occurred in areas closer to home.
Weisheit said the information he has obtained about his local Arizona dam indicates that the potential for such an incident could dwarf that tragedy.
“It would make Katrina look small,” he said, “and look at the impact it has had.”