Asking residents to be soothsayers

June 23, 2014

Remember “Carnac the Magnificent,” the turban-sporting mystic Johnny Carson would occasionally play in a sketch on “The Tonight Show”?

Since Carson has been off “The Tonight Show” for 22 years now, you might be at that age where you experience a few aches and pains when you tumble out of bed in the morning if you do recall Carnac. Nevertheless, the character was a bumbling soothsayer who could divine the answers to questions before they were even asked.

And it appears that residents of Chartiers Township who live near the cryogenic plant operated by MarkWest Energy on Western Avenue are going to need to have abilities on a par with Carnac’s if they are going to have the slightest clue what to do in case of an emergency at the facility. That’s because the township has turned down requests from both a resident and the Observer-Reporter to divulge its evacuation plan.

Jodi Noble, the township’s manager, says it is not a public document because it’s designed for emergency personnel, and revealing it would potentially jeopardize public safety. We disagree with that stance, as does Melissa Melewsky, an attorney for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. She pointed out that keeping such documents under wraps is justifiable only if they disclose how law enforcement does its work in, say, conducting high-speed chases, but this is a procedure that residents who live near the plant must follow in case of an emergency. “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 that you’ve never seen before.”

This is not an idle question. Almost 100 residents near the plant fled their homes May 28 when a lightning strike caused a leak. Most went to a nearby fire station, and the leak was contained within hours. But residents are understandably wary of what goes on at the plant, and, without more concrete information, it seems likely that the first instinct of most of the plant’s neighbors will be to make a willy-nilly run for it if something more serious happens.

Whether it’s tolerating discharge flames or fretting about air quality, the people who live in homes near the plant are asked to put up with things above and beyond what homeowners in typical neighborhoods must endure. We shouldn’t also ask them to be psychic.



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