Philadelphia Inquirer: Disaster management plans kept from sight
By Craig R. McCoy, Edward Colimore and Art Carey Inquirer Staff Writers
Citing the 9/11 attacks and security concerns, officials have limited public access to emergency preparations.

After the Bhopal chemical leak in India killed thousands in 1984, Congress decided public safety required openness about the chemical plants in our midst.
Now, some officials have decided secrecy is better.
Officials across the United States, including some in the Philadelphia region, have ended public access to information about facilities with hazardous materials, a new survey shows.
Citing the 9/11 attacks and security concerns, they refuse to release the information despite a 1986 federal law called the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. It requires communities to develop - and make public - plans for coping with disasters at chemical or hazardous-material plants or facilities.
The survey found that officials refused 36 percent of the time to release any of the plans.
In this area, response was mixed. In the four Pennsylvania counties ringing Philadelphia, officials agreed the public could see the plans.
But Delaware County officials said they would give the FBI the name of anyone who asked. In Chester County, emergency managers refused to release any information - but relented after The Inquirer faxed them the federal law.
In Philadelphia, the head of an emergency planning committee took a month to decide whether the plans were public.
Eventually, chairman David Binder said a reporter could review plans at a city office - but only if the reporter knew enough to ask for a specific plan.
The list of possibly hazardous sites, he said, was still secret.
Access was mixed in New Jersey, too. In Burlington County, Pemberton Township's emergency management coordinator said the public had a right to see the plan: "That's why it's called the Right-to-Know Act," Craig Augustoni said.
Yet in Camden County, Pennsauken officials would not release plans for dealing with a disaster at the Dow chemical plant or other facilities within the township.
Elsewhere, secrecy was more common. The highest rejection rate happened here in the Mid-Atlantic region, where officials turned down nearly half the requests. Agencies in the South were the most open, making plans public three-quarters of the time.
Paul Orum, a consultant on chemical safety, said such secrecy was misguided.
"Giving people a clear idea of the hazards in the community is key to getting public support for emergency preparedness," said Orum, former director of the Working Group on Community Right to Know.
In Bhopal, the world's worst single industrial accident, at least 3,000 people died initially and thousands more later, in a disaster aggravated because the plant had no plan to cope with a spill and had kept local leaders ignorant about the pesticides produced there.
In a coordinated effort by journalism groups, reporters, student journalists, and volunteers from the League of Women Voters fanned out across the nation earlier this year to request the emergency plans. The federal law passed two years after Bhopal says the plans "shall be made available to the general public."
The plans identify facilities with hazardous materials and explain how authorities will cope with a dangerous release.
In all, reporters from 162 news organizations, including The Inquirer, took part, as did other volunteers. They sought emergency plans from 375 emergency planning committees in 36 states, putting requests in for about 1 out of every 8 plans in the United States.
The results were made public today.
Terrorism was mentioned repeatedly as a reason for keeping planssecret.
A freelance radio reporter in Louisiana was denied access to the plan in New Orleans by an official who told her "it wasn't the kind of information we want the terrorists to get."
Several reporters said they were told they were getting documents because they didn't look like terrorists.
In other cases, the request drew suspicion. A query from the Columbus Dispatch newspaper prompted the Ohio State Highway Patrol to e-mail the state's 88 counties to ask them to be on the alert for similar requests.
In Philadelphia, the release of emergency response plans for chemical facilities is overseen by Binder, an executive with a locally based ammonia company. He chairs the city emergency planning committee.
After a month's consideration, Binder said last week plans could be inspected at a city office with a monitor watching - but only if those requesting plans know what they want. "I cannot give you a list of facilities," he said in an e-mail.
MaryAnn E. Marrocolo, the city's new deputy managing director of emergency management and preparedness, also declined to release the city's overall disaster management plan, a 200-page document covering all manner of emergencies, from hurricanes to nuclear meltdowns.
"While you may not have evil intent," she said, "somebody might, and there might be one detail in there that speaks to their plans."
The Inquirer's appeal is pending.
In Delaware County, Edward Doyle, cochair of the Delaware County Local Emergency Planning Committee, said the county would make all plans public - but would inform the FBI and plant operators of all requests.
"It's not intended to keep people from seeing the information but to ensure that those seeing it are seeing it for the reasons they're supposed to be seeing it," he said.
Doyle said he could remember only two requests for the plans in the last two decades.
In New Jersey, access to plans related to chemical plants is often controlled by officials in cities and towns. Access varied in a sampling of cities The Inquirer selected.
In Gloucester County, officials in West Deptford Township readily made public hundreds of pages detailing how they would cope with any disaster at the Eagle Point Refinery or other facilities. The plans contain everything from where the emergency command center would be to how to handle mass casualties.
But Jack Mattera, head of emergency management in Pennsauken Township, would not release the township's plan for responding to an accident at a number of chemical plants.
He said Camden County officials had told him such plans were not public, citing a 2002 executive order from then-Gov. Jim McGreevey barring release of documents that might aid "sabotage or terrorism."
The Inquirer wrote to county officials urging the plans' release, arguing that federal law trumps state directives.
Though the plans were public in the Pennsylvania suburbs, officials in Bucks and Montgomery Counties required those seeking the information to fill out forms or write letters identifying themselves.
Reporters elsewhere ran into more severe obstacles. In Illinois, police ran the name of a reporter through a database to see whether he'd ever been arrested.
Tom Glass, Chester County hazardous-materials coordinator, said that after Bhopal, plant managers readily share information with emergency managers.
On the other hand, he said, he remained anxious about sharing it with the public.

Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 and Inquirer staff writers Mari Schaefer and Jeff Price contributed to this article.