|Dams, like the Glen Canyon dam at Arizona's Lake Powell, pictured above, are just one facet of the built environment whose vulnerability to attack has prompted greater government secrecy. Photo: Reinhard Link, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.
WatchDog Opinion: The 9/11 Legacy — Fear Drew Curtain Over Environmental Information
By Joseph A. Davis
With the ceremonies commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11 now over, it’s a good time to ask what (if anything) we have learned from the attacks and their aftermath.
For those of us on the environment beat, one impact was to underline just how many environmental threats are all around us, as I explain below. But another was to dramatically restrict the media and the public’s ability to know about exactly those threats.
Twenty years later, environmental freedom of information is still at risk. Keeping preventable hazards secret is wrong. It’s also bad public policy. Bad journalism, too.
If people understand the hazards, they can prevent or fix them. With the right information, people can protect themselves — or pressure the government to protect them.
‘Familiar things became weapons’
Part of Al-Qaeda’s surprise in its attacks was in using familiar things (buildings and planes) in our built environment as weapons against us. It should not have surprised us.
The grim truth had been seeping out over years, decades even, despite media inattention. The 1998 East African embassy bombings, by jihadists, could have been a warning. Or the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
And certainly, the government had begun to button up in response to terror in the 1990s. But various industries (including the military and the government itself) had pushed back against openness much of that time.
Familiar things became weapons.
Not just buildings and planes, but
chemical plants, fertilizer depots,
power plants, pipelines and dams.
Familiar things became weapons. Not just buildings and planes, but trucks and cars, gas and oil, chemical plants, fertilizer depots, laboratories, power plants, nuclear plants, dams, water plants, pipelines, trains and ships.
These things had long been threats, but the rise of terrorism was an opportunity that industries could use to keep them hidden and out of the public’s awareness. They were dubbed “critical infrastructure” and in the late ’90s mechanisms were already being ginned up to protect them — and hide their vulnerabilities.
A few realists like White House security adviser Richard A. Clarke were arguing that secrecy was not a substitute for security (more history here and here). But the 9/11 attacks triggered a wave of legislation and rulemaking that put some of the worst environmental threats into the dark shadows where few of the public would ever know about them.
Secrecy, from drinking water systems to hazmat transports
What follows is a catalogue of some major areas of this secrecy movement.
Drinking water: The public drinking water treatment and distribution systems that keep most Americans hydrated and healthy could be used for harm by terrorists. The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 included a drinking water security title requiring 8,400 of the nation’s largest drinking water plants to assess their security and devise plans for protecting people’s health. Congress made these documents secret, exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. The original Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 had built public confidence with the most transparent public provisions of any environmental law. No more. We don’t really know if drinking water utilities have carried out their security plans.
Electric generation and grid: Lots of things can threaten the electric generation and transmission system. Wind and ice, heavy loads, branches falling, bad engineering, poor maintenance, equipment failure and utility company greed are among them. Government and industry have set up an institutional fabric to prevent blackouts, and at the pinnacle are the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Secrecy is widespread in these domains, too. FERC long ago declared some of its data “critical energy infrastructure information,” making it unavailable to reporters and the public. NERC, too, is very buttoned-up. The problem with all that secrecy is that it protects nobody (Russians have successfully hacked computers of U.S. nuclear plants; may require subscription.) What it does do is keep the public from knowing about how badly the government is failing in protecting the grid.
Pipelines: Pipelines are controversial because they have become symbols of fossil fuel energy (and take people’s land). Certainly, pipeline protests were happening in 2001. But they have intensified as the issue of climate change has grown more salient, and as organizers have succeeded in mobilizing large determined crowds. Pipeline safety as an issue predates 9/11. For years, it has been regulated (somewhat) by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, with plenty of secrecy. The 9/11 impact? PHMSA once published a map database, open, online and searchable, called the National Pipeline Mapping System. Access to the NPMS was restricted almost immediately after 9/11 by executive action. It has only been partially restored.
The grand, if unspoken, bargain was that
Congress agreed not to regulate chemical
safety in return for industry’s agreement to
provisions requiring disclosure of hazards.
Chemical plants: One ostensible purpose of several federal chemical laws is to keep plants from leaking, polluting, catching fire, blowing up and poisoning or killing people. One effort was the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which Congress passed in 1986 in response to the Bhopal disaster. The grand, if unspoken, bargain was that Congress agreed not to regulate chemical safety in return for industry’s agreement to provisions requiring disclosure of hazards. The theory, some said, was that pressure from an informed public would keep plants safe. The mandate for disclosing chemical risks, however, was eroded by further industry lobbying and Congressional amendments to the law. Even before 9/11, Congress passed the Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act in 1999. That made the “worst case” data very hard to get. A later 2014 program, the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, also kept key info secret from the public.
Dams: Before 9/11, data on the safety and condition of dams was pretty easy to get — beginning with the National Inventory of Dams, a public, online and searchable database of the largest 90,000 dams in the United States. It’s important for the public to know whether a dam’s failure would endanger people or property — that is, its hazard ranking. It’s important to know if a dam is in bad condition, crumbling and in danger of failure. That includes the results of inspections. Under the current regime of federal and state laws and regulations, this information is obscured or kept secret in a lot of places. This makes for bad public policy — and opportunities for great public interest journalism, such as an AP series in 2019.
Food and agriculture: Yes, terrorists could attack our food supply. But far bigger threats can be found in climate change, floods, drought, ice storms, heat waves, insects, diseases, agricultural chemicals and market failures. Supply chain issues during the pandemic revealed logistical vulnerabilities. Most foodborne illness comes from microbes and pathogens — almost always from poor food handling and regulation. Diseases that harm crops and animals make farmers and ranchers shiver. All this could be called “biosecurity,” but the ag industry tends to mean stopping hoof-and-mouth disease rather than stopping terrorists. Anthrax is a livestock disease, as well as a potential bioweapon. Secrecy is imposed on this arena by many laws and regs — which often do more to protect industry and regulators than to protect the public. One well-known example is “ag-gag” secrecy laws, which courts have found unconstitutional. Much of the relevant U.S. law originated with the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 (one of many such laws). Secrecy is a big part of these laws.
Hazmat transportation and other threats: The Canadian rail disaster of 2013 in Lac-Mégantic offered another lurid example of the danger of obscuring environmental threats. Oil trains became a story as limited pipeline capacity slowed the flow of Alberta oil-sands petroleum to market. But the rail and oil industries put up a mighty fight to keep locals from knowing whether, when and where these rolling firebombs were moving through populated areas. It’s not just oil. Tankers full of deadly chlorine gas even today stand unwatched on rail sidings.
Impacts on environmental journalism — and public safety
Of course, 9/11 was a pivot-point. But 20 years later, we see the historical curve of the 20-year war on terror.
Even though the United States has now left Afghanistan, the war on terror is not over — rather it has metastasized, both beyond our borders and within them. The United States has become in many ways a security state, a surveillance state and a secrecy state.
Sometimes the secrecy is useful for public safety and even in keeping with our constitutional values and a free press. But in many cases it is not.
Many industries’ political strategy has been
to try to reduce public awareness of the
threats they present — in order to weaken
or head off health and safety regulations.
Many of the industries protected by the new secrecy were working for secrecy before 9/11; their political strategy has been to try to reduce public awareness of the threats they present — in order to weaken or head off health and safety regulations.
Some may remember the award-winning epic feature package, “Pipelines: The Invisible Danger,” by Jeff Nesmith and Ralph Haurwitz, published in the Austin American-Statesman on July 22, 2001. It relied on PHMSA’s National Pipeline Mapping System. Such stories are rare or vanished today, after pipeline data went dark after 9/11.
Secrecy did not prevent the San Bruno, Calif., gas pipeline explosion of 2010 — in fact, secrecy may well have made it worse as PG&E, the pipeline’s owner, tried to cover up its mistakes. The pipeline was blown up by neglect, not by terrorists.
The West, Texas, explosion of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in 2013 offered another tragic lesson. Lack of information caused the town to build schools and dwellings near the site. Ten of the 15 killed were first responders who rushed toward the fire, not knowing the hazard it presented.
Secrecy kills. Still, after all these years and all these catastrophes, it kills by hiding from people the environmental threats they need to protect themselves against.
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 33. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.