The Office of Open Records in Harrisburg sided with Chartiers Township and denied the Observer-Reporter’s appeal for access to the township’s evacuation plan.
Appeals Officer Benjamin Lorah ruled the evacuation plan is public safety information that is exempt under the Right to Know Law.
“Obviously, we are disappointed in the decision to deny our request for the evacuation plan,” said Lucy Northrop Corwin, the O-R’s director of news. “We feel the community is better served by having the information in advance of an actual emergency at the plant.”
The newspaper filed a Right to Know request for the evacuation plan two weeks after about 100 township residents were evacuated in May when lightning struck the MarkWest cryogenic plant on Western Avenue and caused a natural gas leak.
Chartiers Township Manager Jodi Noble denied the request, and the newspaper appealed the decision to the Office of Open Records June 25. The Observer-Reporter argued that the evacuation plan should be made public because confusion ensued during the evacuation in May, and several residents self-evacuated before first responders arrived. Several residents also complained that first responders did not immediately divulge what had happened.
The township, in its response to the newspaper’s appeal, argued the evacuation “was performed calmly and professionally with no resulting injuries or panic.”
According to state law, documents pertaining to law enforcement or public safety can be kept private if releasing them would be “reasonably likely to jeopardize or threaten public safety.”
The Office of Open Records agreed with Chartiers Township that the exemption applied. The plan includes evacuation procedures, control points used to limit traffic and the planned stations of emergency personnel. It also includes information provided by MarkWest, such as power supply sources, access locations and site infrastructure.
Chartiers Township argued that releasing the evacuation plan would make evacuation routes “vulnerable to disruption” and also would make police officers vulnerable by disclosing their locations in the event of an emergency.
“It is Chartiers Township’s position that the disclosure of names, addresses and procedures in the event of an evacuation will create confusion among the general public and would threaten public safety and protection,” the township said in its response to the Observer-Reporter’s appeal.
A separate Right to Know request was submitted last October by township resident Erin Sethman, who lives across from the MarkWest plant. In her request, she wrote, “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 also denied Sethman’s request.
Chartiers Township cannot be compelled to provide the plan, but Lorah cited a section of state law indicating that the township could opt to make an otherwise-exempt document public if the township “determines that the public interest favoring access outweighs any individual, agency or public interest that may favor restriction of access.”
In response to the Observer-Reporter’s appeal, Chartiers Township provided a copy of the “basic plan” portion of the emergency response plan but said the “incident specific” evacuation plan was not public. The basic plan includes a safety checklist and several blank forms that would be used in the event of an emergency.