By: Joe Strupp
News outlets seeking inspection and safety data on local dams, in light off the recent string of floods in the Midwest, have been stonewalled by government officials who have withheld such data as part of the Patriot Act, according to Investigative Reporters and Editors.
IRE Data Base Library Director Jeremy Milarsky, who oversees the group’s handling of data requests from news organizations, said at least a dozen news outlets requested such background data on dam inspections from IRE in the last week. He said that is up from the usual three or four in any given year.
Such information, however, has been unavailable since 2002, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began rejecting such requests as part of a U.S. Patriot Act stipulation.
“Among other things, the data included when each dam was last inspected, whether there was an evacuation plan for the area, and whether there was populated area close to the dam that would be impacted,” Milarsky said. “It is basically a list of dams with information about how safe the dams were.”
Milarsky said the data for nearly 70,000 dams is in the data base, which IRE had access to prior to 2002 when the Patriot Act changes took effect. He adds that IRE has annually requested access to the data, being rejected each time.
“The searchable database comprising the NID (National Inventory of Dams) concerns dams that meet the definition of ‘critical infrastructure’ as defined by the USA Patriot Act of 2001,” the last rejection letter from the Department of the Army, sent to IRE in June 2007, stated. It later adds that the requested database “contains certain information that constitutes a vulnerability assessment.”
Timothy L. Felker, the Army Corps of Engineers counsel who wrote the letter, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
Milarsky said keeping such information from the press, and the public, adds to safety concerns. “Reporters last week, all over the country, were asking officials about the infrastructure designed to protect people during flooding,” he explained. “This is one more category of infrastructure that is a very useful tool for investigations.”
James Wilkerson, a data editor for the Des Moines Register, is one of the journalists who recently sought the dam data from IRE, only to find it was withheld. “With all of the problems with the flooding, the information would be very useful,” he told E&P. “It makes it hard for the public to understand how these dams are maintained.”
Among IRE’s many activities is maintaining such data for reporters to access. Last year, after the tragic Minnesota bridge collapse, the organization was swamped with requests for bridge inspection data, which was available.
“The public interest in being updated on the condition of these dams outweighs the security concerns about giving out the information,” said IRE Executive Director Mark Horvit. “Our concern is that this information is important to the public because it talks about inspection data and safety.”