A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided this week that this material could be withheld because “terrorists or criminals could use that information to determine whether attacking a dam would be worthwhile.” The court’s reasoning significantly expands the scope of the exemption under the Freedom of Information Act for material compiled for “law enforcement purposes.”
“Under the standard articulated by the court, the majority of information about known risks and planned responses to virtually every emergency could be placed off limits,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed the complaint and argued the appeal. “This ruling will block affected communities from learning about plans to prevent and respond to chemical spills,” added Dinerstein, noting recently-plagued West Virginia, oil blowouts that fouled the Gulf of Mexico and even steps needed to prevent and respond to contamination of food and drugs.
The case involves the actions of a little-known agency called the United States Section, International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC) which implements border treaties with Mexico and, in so doing, jointly operates several international dams and water treatment plants along the border. Despite acknowledging external reviews showing two major structures, the Falcon and Amistad Dams, are in “urgent” need of repair, the agency refused to release –
- More than 75 inundation maps, showing what areas will be flooded following dam failure;
- A 2009 report issued by a panel of technical advisors regarding the condition of Amistad Dam (the release of which was remanded to the lower court for further consideration); and
- Much of the Emergency Action Plans for the dams, including the “Guidance for Determining the Emergency Level”; “Notifications and Emergency Service Contacts”; “Location and Vicinity Maps”; “Summary of People/Structures at Greatest Risk”; and “Reservoir Elevation Area-Capacity Data”.