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Access to environmental information.

In the February 2004 issue of EHP in the article "Does Secrecy Equal Security? Limiting Access to Environmental Information," Richard Dahl (2004) discussed the government's current policies placing greater restrictions on public access to information that industry and government were once required to make available.

A future in which federal agencies withhold information on environmental problems throughout the United States economy in the name of "national security" can be glimpsed by taking a look at Department of Energy (DOE) facilities. DOE facilities have long operated at the nexus of public concern and national security.

In the 10 years that I have devoted to studying historical exposures at DOE sites, I have seen the future, and it's not pretty. My experience with the DOE's response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA 2004) requests has been enlightening:

* In 1996, a DOE FOIA officer asserted that records from a reactor safety committee at Los Alamos National Laboratory were not classified but possibly "sensitive." I followed up with a written request for a legal definition of "sensitive"; his response was that he was unable to find a definition.

* After patiently waiting several months for a response to another FOIA request, I finally obtained reports on historical air emissions of plutonium at Los Alamos, but pages were missing in a regular sequence. When I enquired about the missing pages, a DOE FOIA officer told me that maybe the missing pages were "owned" by the contractor and not by the federal government, and therefore were beyond the reach of the FOIA.

* Also, colleagues holding security clearances at DOE sites told me that they were sometimes afraid to discuss subjects that were amply documented in the public domain.

* Highly qualified academic epidemiologists have had to struggle with government lawyers in attempts to obtain access to historical exposure records (Advisory Committee on Energy-Related Epidemiologic Research 1996). The lawyers had ample resources to cause delays, but the epidemiologists had limited time to complete work on National Institutes of Health grants or face the opprobrium of peers and funding agencies.

Many former workers who have submitted claims for illness compensation under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act (2000) face a difficult situation: they are depending upon timely access to information about past exposures so they can receive compensation before they die (General Accounting Office 2004). Further restrictions on information access put in place by some DOE contractors since 11 September 2001 (Costner et al. 2002; Widner et al. 2004) may have the effect of alienating some of our most loyal citizens.

Much of the secrecy involving DOE facilities during the Cold War was unnecessary, and it is deeply distressing that some government officials who lead the current "war on terrorism" seem not to have learned this lesson.

Environmental health practice and science suffer when information does not flow freely. The environmental health community has plenty of experience advocating unpopular positions when we believe we are right. We are well-positioned to lead society in resisting the intrusion of national security secrecy into democratic processes and institutions.

The author declares he has no competing financial interests.


Advisory Committee on Energy-Related Epidemiologic Research. 1996. Summary of the Eighth Meeting, 18-19 April 1996, Santa Fe, NM. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Costner B, Rogers P. 2002. Access denied. Bull At Sci 58(2):58.

Dahl R. 2004. Does secrecy equal security? Limiting access to environmental information. Environ Health Perspect 112:A104-A107.

Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act of 2000. 2000. Public Law 106-398.

FOIA (Freedom of Information Act). 2004. 5USC552.

General Accounting Office. 2004. Energy Employees Compensation. Draft Report. GAO-04-516. Washington, DC:General Accounting Office.

Widner T, Shonka J, Rack S, O'Brien J, Burns R, Buddenbaum J, et al. 2004. Draft Interim Report of the Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment (LAHDRA) Project. Alameda, CA:ENSR International. Available: http:// LAHDRA%20Draft%20Interim%20Report%20v1b-w.pdf [accessed 5 May 2004].

Ken Silver

Department of Environmental Health

East Tennessee State University

Johnson City, Tennessee

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Title Annotation:Perspectives / Correspondence
Author:Silver, Ken
Publication:Environmental Health Perspectives
Date:Jun 1, 2004
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