The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Emergency Response Records Kept from Public, Test Reveals

by Jessica Azulay

Mar. 13, 2007 – In a multi-state experiment designed to test whether the public could access emergency-planning information for their communities, more than half of local officials failed to provide the full documentation required by law.

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The "information audit" was conducted by hundreds of journalists and members of the public as part of Sunshine Week, a project led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation of Miami.

During two weeks in January, volunteers approached 404 Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) in 37 states and Puerto Rico. The LEPCs are required by federal law to design local plans for responding to hazardous-material emergencies. The federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, which mandated the local emergency-planning committees, also requires those committees to notify the public once a year that the plans are publicly available.

According to a report released by the organizers of Sunshine Week, only 44 percent of local officials provided the full plans to volunteers who requested them. Another 20 percent provided incomplete plans, and 36 percent refused to give the plans to the requestors. The report noted that many officials cited concerns over national security as a reason for not releasing the plans, while others appeared to be unaware that they were required to make the plans publicly accessible.

"The opportunity to review plans provides several benefits," Debra Gersh Hernandez, coordinator of Sunshine Week, told The NewStandard. "The public can evaluate whether the information has been updated and is relevant; that local emergency contact information is correct; or simply to educate people on what to do in the event of an emergency before it happens."

The plans are required by law to include the location of hazardous materials in the area, the transportation routes used to transport hazardous materials, and procedures for determining if dangerous chemicals have been released. Additionally, the information should include how the public will be notified of an incident, as well as evacuation plans and plans for training emergency-response and medical personnel to respond.

The release of the audit was just one project planned for this year’s Sunshine Week. The National Security Archive at George Washington University released a report yesterday showing that only a fifth of federal agencies are complying with requirements under the Freedom of Information Act that they post some documents online and provide the public with information on how to request records from government agencies.

Local organizations have also planned events this week throughout the United States to educate the public about access to government information.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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