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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 15, 2007

National audit reveals problems
Albany County forecasts brighter days

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALBANY COUNTY — Nobody in Albany County has asked for the Comprehensive Emergency Response Plan in 20 years, according to the sheriff’s department. The Enterprise asked for the plan on Jan. 18 as part of a national Sunshine Week audit, organized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Sunshine week was set up to highlight the importance of transparent government and the public’s right to know. It began as Sunshine Sunday held by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in 2002.

The audit involved requesting a plan regarding chemical or hazardous material spills that every community in the country is federally required to have. Following the accident at a chemical plant in Bhopal, India 20 years ago, Congress passed a law requiring communities to create, update, and make public their plans for handling chemical emergencies. The 1986 law, titled the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, states that the emergency response plan "shall be made available to the general public." Some specific information about the location of some chemicals is allowed to be kept secret in a Tier II report.

According to the results of the national audit, of the 404 response plans requested nationwide, 44 percent were provided in full, 20 percent were answered partially, and 36 percent were denied.

The Enterprise hit some snags in its quest for the plan. In the end, the newspaper was provided with a copy of the county’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan. "The Comprehensive Response Plan is something that is different," said John Layton, commander of the Critical Incident Emergency Management Unit. "That’s where the confusion took place."

The management plan is all-encompassing, he said. It doesn’t address the specifics of how to deal with chemical emergencies though. They are dealt with in another plan, he said, the files for which are 10 to 12 inches thick.

That plan is undergoing a major overhaul, he said. It is reviewed every year and this year the management unit is in the process of adding new agencies to the plan. "We would have gladly had you take a look through the files," Layton said, had there been no confusion in the names of the plans.

"Quite frankly," he said, "you were the first person" to ask for it. Terry Ryan, the Albany County Emergency Manager, who handled The Enterprise’s request has worked in the office for 18 years, Layton said, "and he’s never had anybody ask for it."

Ryan had The Enterprise file a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which is not necessary to access this particular plan.

"Sometimes it happens, especially with something like this that is very rarely referenced, that a county agency does not know that it is required to make this public without a FOIL," said Albany County Clerk Thomas Clingan.

"Quite frankly, this is the first time anyone’s asked for that," Layton said of the plan, explaining that his office didn’t realize that it wasn’t subject to FOIL.

Many reporters who participated in the nationwide audit were refused the information altogether, according to the summary of the audit’s results. One of the most frequently-cited reasons for denying the request was national security or terrorism concerns. Similar to the range of responses from municipalities across the country were the range of prices charged for the plan, which went from no cost to $1,714. Albany County charged the standard, 25 cents per page, totaling $20.50.

In one of the most egregious examples, the county attorney in Caroline, Md., Ernest A. Crofoot, told reporter Ted Bond that in addition to the cost of the pages, which would total $114, "I estimate that it will take me at least 6 to 8 hours to review the document for non-disclosure compliance with the Act. The cost to the County for that review time would be in the range of $1,200 to $1,600," the summary says. Crofoot added that the county would require $1,200 up front.

Some county offices ran background checks on reporters when they came in asking for a copy of the plan. In Jackson, Miss., the emergency management director notified reporter Chris Joyner that he "had a criminal background check performed on me," Joyner said. "He also said he had notified the FBI and the Mississippi Joint Terrorism Task Force and informed them that I wanted to look at the plan ‘and wouldn’t say why.’"

When reporter George Merritt was denied the plan, he was told that a national alert had gone out about the audit, the summary says. He was told that there were "a rash of people around the country posing as reporters and asking for emergency response plans."

At the other end of the spectrum was Allamakee County, Iowa, according to the summary. "It’s nice to see someone interested in the county disaster plan," wrote the emergency manager to reporter Kelli Boylen. "We need more awareness on what to do during an incident for the safety of everyone."

Layton apologized for the mix-up in the plans. The similarity between the names was confusing, he said, and asked for advice on how his office could handle things better in the future. You can learn something from every encounter, he said.

"Obviously" there was some confusion and I think we learned what the difference was there and we learned to ask a little better questions when it came down to how it was requested," said Layton.

"We’re all trying to help," he said.

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