The government maintains information that it is the public's right to know.
A lot of that information, the public wants to know. This is information the public needs to know. It's about public safety. It's about the environment. It's about quality of life.
Eight environmental groups and the Associated Press last week filed Freedom of Information Law requests with the state Office of Emergency Management seeking details about shipments of explosive crude oil from the Bakken shale region. The fuel is shipped via trains on 1,000 miles of rail line across the state, through big cities like Buffalo, Syracuse and Albany, through small communities in Washington and Saratoga counties, and down through the Hudson Valley.
When there was leak of 100 gallons of fuel at the Port of Albany last month, officials didn't bother to tell Albany County officials about it for the purposes of emergency response management.
The state has the details about the shipments of Bakken crude in its possession, including information about the exact routes and how much fuel is being transported. But the state, so far, has declined to share that information with its citizens.
It's now mulling over the FOIL requests, and says it will respond within 20 days. That's too long. A lot of bad can happen in 20 days. Just look at the other disasters in the U.S. and Canada involving this fuel to see just how bad. How could the state justify a delay of even one day in sharing this information with the public?
The railroad companies claim that releasing it could compromise the security of the shipments. Yet several other states, including heavily populated states like Florida and California, have released the information, apparently placing their citizens' welfare above some vague security concerns. The attorney general in North Dakota, where this fuel comes from, said there is no legal basis for withholding the information. Why, then, would New York state officials refuse for one day to inform the public about the potential danger, much less wait three weeks just to decide whether to release it?
Fire departments and rescue squads aren't the only ones that have a stake in knowing where this stuff is going and in what quantities. Residents and businesses along the routes and near the storage facilities have a stake. People who use the lakes and rivers and streams and land these trains pass over and through have a stake in knowing the potential threats to the environment. Motorists and others who share the rail lines have a stake.
Yet New York officials sit on the information while potentially thousands of gallons of this fuel literally pass through our backyards without us knowing anything about it.
It shouldn't take a Freedom of Information Law request to get this information released to the public. All the state should be looking at is who needs to know this information.
And the answer is, we all do. Right now.