Monday, December 06, 2004

Village of the Dammed

Suppose you lived near a nuclear plant that had some structural problems. Would you prefer to have the problems revealed and fixed, or would you prefer them to be concealed, so that terrorists wouldn't learn about them?

Suppose the plant didn't have structural problems, but was still vulnerable to earthquakes and terrorism. Should government agencies have access to maps of areas that would likely be contaminated with fallout in the event of a disaster?

While you're thinking about that, read this:

When Teton County Commissioner Bill Paddleford heard a researcher discuss the possibility that part of Jackson Lake Dam could liquefy in a large earthquake, he was both worried and miffed.

For two years, Paddleford said, he has been after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to give county officials information on the safety of the dam and any potential threats to the structure. Local officials wanted it as part of their emergency planning.

Agency officials said the dam, a short distance upstream from the resort community of Jackson, was safe, but Paddleford said they refused to release specifics.


The dispute highlights a problem faced by some local governments and groups since the terrorist attacks of 2001: It isn't just the general public that is finding it more difficult to get information from state and federal governments about dams, electric utilities or other structures in their areas - whether for safety, environmental or political concerns.


The bureau argued the release could endanger both the dams and the safety of those living downstream, and that disclosure of areas that would be flooded was exempt under the Freedom of Information Act.

Apparently, Tommy Thompson can publicly give terrorists tips on where U.S. security is weakest, but a county government can't get information vital to its emergency planning, simply because the information might be of use to terrorists. That seems both high-handed and counterproductive.

Wyoming has had some experience with dam failures. In fact, the original Jackson Lake Dam failed in 1910; its replacement had to be reconstructed in the late eighties. In 1965, the Fontenelle Dam failed; fortunately, outlets were opened in time and the city of Green River was dampened, instead of being swept off the face of the earth. Jackson Lake Dam, like the destroyed Fontenelle Dam, is an earthfill dam; it holds back roughly 275 billion gallons of water. It's about seven miles east of the active Teton Fault, and there are a number of towns in its floodpath.

It seems to me that whether the dam is vulnerable to earthquakes or a terrorist attack or the immaculate wrath of Yahweh, there's no conceivable reason to conceal an inundation map from county officials. It's hard to see this as anything more than another cynical use of 9/11 as BushCo's ultimate argument-settler.

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