Sustained Outrage

Obama secrecy

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President Barack Obama has promised a new era of openness, accountability and transparency in government. Obama has also said he’s committed to protecting government whistle-blowers and criticized the Bush administration’s use of presidential “signing statements” to instruct agencies how they should enforce laws passed by Congress.

So it’s probably understandable that Obama is taking some heat now for adding a signing statement to the recent government spending bill, especially since it affects how the government might deal with internal watchdogs who try to go public.

The New York Times has the story:

WASHINGTON — A leading Republican senator maintains that President Obama is violating a campaign promise with his claim that he can bypass whistle-blower protections for executive branch officials who give certain information to Congress.

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Open government is about respect

Here’s a commentary for Sunshine Week by Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. An attorney and former journalist, Kirtley was executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press from 1985-1999.

Do you want to know what your government is up to? What it’s doing with your tax dollars? When it will propose a new health care policy? Where it’s sending young men and women to fight? How it’s regulating banks and bailing out the financial industry? Why children in our public schools aren’t performing as well as their counterparts in other countries?

Of course you do. It’s your right to know these things. Dozens of state and federal laws say so.

08kirtley150.jpgBut governments have a million excuses for resisting those laws. They’ll say that disclosing information will endanger national security. Or invade someone’s privacy. Or make it tougher to compete in the global marketplace.

Some of those excuses may sound pretty reasonable. Once in a while, they’re probably justified.

But most of us are at least a little bit skeptical when the government says “No, you can’t have that information.” The government’s business is the public’s business. Unless there’s a very good reason, we expect government to tell us what it’s doing, and how it’s doing it. In other words, we expect it to be accountable to us. After all, we’re paying for it.

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Keeping secrets

sw09_ad_button1.jpgMore Sunshine Week news:

For the first time in four years, public opinion about government secrecy has leveled off, although more than seven in 10 adults still consider the federal government to be secretive, according to the 2009 Sunshine Week survey by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

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Let the sunshine in … to government

sw09_ad_button1.jpg Today marks the start of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to get people talking about the importance of open government and freedom of information. The effort is led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and also includes other print, broadcast and online media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.

As part of the initiative, teams of journalists conducted a nationwide survey to test the availability of a variety of public information online. The Associated Press put out a national story on the results, and we’ve posted that on the Gazette’s Watchdog Web site. Here’s a bit of the story:

Americans can easily learn about their state songs and state flowers with a quick search on the Internet, but most will have a harder time checking whether their children’s school buses are safe or a local gas station is charging too much.

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Secret Meetings, March 13, 2009

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Well, today’s edition of the State Register lists a dozen public meetings that were announced in violation of the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act. The law requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting.

But gosh,  nine of those dozen open government violations were committed by one little agency: The Coalbed Methane Review Board. The board submitted meeting notices for nine different public hearings, all of which occurred yesterday. Kind of hard for the public to attend when the meeting notice is published after the meeting occurs, isn’t it?

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TRI making a comeback

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I wrote recently about efforts to urge President Obama to reverse some Bush administration rules that weakened the requirements for companies to report to the public and regulators about toxic chemical releases.

Well, guess what?

According to today’s Washington Post, at least some of the Bush rollbacks in the Toxics Release Inventory program  are being fixed as part of the massive spending bill Obama signed into law yesterday.

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MIC in Institute: What’s old is new again

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Reporters wearing hard hats cluster around Union Carbide officials during a tour of the MIC unit at the company’s Institute plant. Note the skull and crossbones on the “Poison Gas MIC” sign. This Dec. 11, 1984, Gazette file photo was taken less than a week after the Bhopal disaster.

I guess I’ve been around the Gazette a long time now, because the issues just keep repeating themselves.

About 15 years ago, I spent a lot of time reporting on the stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, out at the Institute chemical plant. The plant was then owned by Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co., had previously been run by Union Carbide, and is now part of Bayer CropScience.

MIC issues at the plant had become a hot issue right after thousands of people died in a leak at the sister Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. They got even hotter after 135 people were injured in an Institute leak in August 1985, and it was that leak that probably led Congress to reform chemical safety and right-to-know laws in 1986.

Recently, a couple of readers pointed out a story of mine that the Gazette published on Nov. 13, 1994, about an independent study of whether the Institute plant could — and more importantly should — reduce its MIC stockpile in the name of worker and community safety. The story said:

Rhone-Poulenc Ag Co. could eliminate the bulk storage of deadly methyl isocyanate at its Institute plant, but has never thoroughly studied methods to do so, a citizens group said in a report released Saturday.

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Chemical board not bucking Bayer

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It doesn’t look like the federal Chemical Safety Board is ready to stand up for the public’s right to know — at least not yet.

That’s according to a new story by my fellow Society of Environmental Journalists member Jeff Johnson in Chemical & Engineering News.

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WVU secrecy VI

Last week, we reported the ways WVU kept secret its deliberations in hiring James P. Clements as the school’s 23rd president. You’d think now that the Higher Education Policy Commission has confirmed the Board of Governors’ pick and agreed to his salary of $450,000, that WVU might be more forthcoming in details of Clements’ other compensation and perks.

However, WVU officials on Monday declined to share this public information without the delays of a formal Freedom of Information Act request.

In an e-mail, WVU spokesman Dan Kim wrote:

 “I think the best approach would be for you to submit a FOIA for the contract. That contract is not yet complete, but you should go ahead and submit your request. I think that will be the best way to get answers to your questions.”

    

Bring back the TRI

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Hundreds of national, state and local groups are calling on the Obama EPA to reverse a Bush administration rule that limited public access to information about toxic chemical releases.

In a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, 238 organizations — along with nearly 1,300 individuals — urged the agency to settle an ongoing lawsuit that challenged the Toxics Release Inventory Burden Reduction Rule.

“The Bush administration’s rollbacks set a dangerous precedent undermining two decades of public access to toxic pollution data,” said U.S. PIRG Public Health Advocate Liz Hitchcock. “Congress established the TRI program to serve the public by providing information about toxic releases in our communities, and we urge the Obama administration to restore the public’s right to know.”

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