Freedom from information

While the Department of Health Services is relying on a vague section of the California Public Records Act to make it difficult for people to scrutinize public records about disposal of radioactive waste, Governor Gray Davis’ administration and the nuclear industry have managed to get such secrecy codified into law. The justification? You guessed it: September 11.

Senate Bill 2065, written by Senator Sheila Kuehl, began as an attempt to improve the public’s access to information about the presence of nuclear waste in its communities. But many environmentalists are calling the end result a serious erosion of citizens’ right to know about potentially dangerous pollution where they live.

The bill, as introduced, started from a simple enough premise: to require the Department of Health Services to keep a database of all radioactive waste generated, stored or disposed of within California. Under the original version of the bill, that information would have been available to the public.

But lobbying by Southern California Edison, which operates a nuclear power plant at San Onofre, and a veto threat by Davis, caused the bill to take a sharp turn toward secrecy. Under provisions signed into law, information about the presence of low-level radioactive waste, called LLRW, can be provided to average citizens (including journalists, neighborhood activists and local government officials) only in a form that aggregates the data by county. The law specifically says that, “the department shall not make public the identity and location of any site where LLRW is stored or used.”

Your local legislator is allowed to see the information, but don’t go calling up Darrell Steinberg’s office just yet; the new law puts a gag on lawmakers too. “No member of the Legislature may disclose the identity or location of any site where LLRW is stored or used to any member of the general public,” it states.

Critics of the bill say that even after September 11, the public is a lot safer knowing where radioactive waste is and knowing that it is being properly handled and safeguarded than not knowing anything at all. And, by hiding the presence of nuclear material, the bill may violate the California Environmental Quality Act.

“It is using the facade of security concerns to cover up the facts about pollution,” said Bill Magavern, a Sacramento lobbyist with the Sierra Club.

The Kuehl aide who handled SB 2065, Cyrus Deavers, said he thinks the threats of terrorism are sometimes “overblown.” But in this case, he said, the senator agreed with the governor that the risks outweighed the public’s need for the information.

Kuehl has always been a favorite among environmentalists, but many of her usual supporters shied away from supporting SB 2065. So, the bill was changed.

"We feared that it would end up taking away the community’s right to know," explained Magavern. "And we were right."