Chartiers Township keeps evacuation plan private

June 19, 2014
Chartiers Township turned down the Observer-Reporter’s Right-to-Know request for a copy of the township’s evacuation plan for emergencies tied to the MarkWest Energy plant. Three weeks ago, 100 residents were evacuated around the plant on Western Avenue in Houston. - Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Chartiers Township denied the Observer-Reporter’s Right-to-Know request for a copy of the township’s evacuation plan in the event of an emergency at the MarkWest Energy cryogenic plant on Western Avenue.

The denial came three weeks after about 100 nearby residents were evacuated from their homes when lightning struck the MarkWest plant and caused a natural gas leak. Several residents left before first responders arrived at their homes.

The emergency response plan, prepared by the township’s emergency management coordinator, was withheld because it is not a public document, according to Jodi Noble, township manager and open records officer.

“It is not a public document under the Right-to-Know Law, and the purpose of the document is for first responders to utilize contact information, know where to go (and) the hierarchy of communications,” Noble said. “That is the purpose and the nature of that document.”

Chartiers Township resident Erin Sethman, who lives across from the MarkWest plant, initially requested the emergency response and evacuation plan from the township in October. Sethman wrote in her request, “Our home is in very close proximity of the plant … This request is reasonable due to small children and elderly living in harm’s way.”

The township denied both Right-to-Know requests, citing an exemption in a section of the law that allows public safety information to be withheld if it “would be reasonably likely to jeopardize or threaten public safety or preparedness or public protection activity.”

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said she believes the emergency plan should be made public because it concerns the public.

“I don’t believe the township’s position is correct in this case because it’s a public policy,” Melewsky said. “It’s a policy the public has to comply with when there’s an emergency situation. It doesn’t make any sense to say to the members of the public, ‘You can’t see this policy, but if there’s an emergency, we’re going to expect you to operate pursuant to this policy you’ve never seen before.’”

Melewsky said the exemption cited by the township is typically used to prevent public safety hazards, such as releasing specific information on how police officers conduct high-speed chases to apprehend criminals.

“I think this policy is quite different because it’s applicable to the public,” Melewsky said.

The Observer-Reporter plans to appeal the township’s denial of information to the Office of Open Records in Harrisburg.

“It is ludicrous to exclude the public from access to a document that has a direct bearing on their safety,” Editor Liz Rogers said. “We believe withholding the plan will accomplish precisely what the township maintains could happen if it is released, which would be to jeopardize or threaten public safety.”

Emily Petsko joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in June 2013. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor's degree in journalism and global cultural studies.

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