VDOT bans public access to detailed bridge inspection reports

Once-public information is now secret due to potential terrorism concerns

News The Virginian-Pilot September 06, 2007
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Amid concerns of terrorism, the Virginia Department of Transportation has banned public access to detailed bridge inspection reports.

The reports sometimes contain specific references about which bridge components are weakest, and VDOT believes that such information, along with photographs that sometimes accompany the reports, could encourage terrorism by guiding criminals on how to cause significant damage with relatively little effort.

“We’re trying to balance the public’s right to know with its need to know,” Malcolm T. Kerley, VDOT’s chief engineer, said Sep. 4. “If we have a bridge in a certain structural condition, we’re not going to show people where the weakest points might be.”

VDOT confirmed Aug. 4 that it had received a memo from Department of Homeland Security officials expressing concern about heavy publicity following the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in August.

In an Aug. 15 bulletin sent to the Federal Highway Administration and state departments of transportation, Homeland Security officials said the collapse highlighted the potential vulnerability “that can be exploited by terrorists or criminals” when technical structural information is made available to the public.

The bulletin encouraged state transportation departments and private companies that own bridges to “protect such information and prevent adversaries from exploiting it for use and conducting attacks.”

A second, Aug. 17 bulletin from the U.S. Department of Transportation said that after the Minnesota disaster, requests for inspection reports, drawings and other detailed information came into state departments of transportation nationwide.

“Some concerns have been raised, however, that while release of such information might be useful to educate and inform the public, the information might also be used by persons planning to conduct terrorist or criminal acts related to bridges,” the bulletin said.

It asked states to clear requests for security-related information with federal officials.

After receiving the bulletin, Kerley said he sought advice from Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell’s office, which agreed that the information be kept secret.

“The attorney general said we would be within state law to withhold such information,” Kerley said.

The bridge inspection reports that have been blocked from view were not posted online but were previously available to the public.

“We have not had them on the website,” said Donna Purcell Mayes, a spokeswoman for VDOT in Richmond. “We provided them when requested, but now we cannot provide them at all.”

Advocates of open government warned that the move was part of a national trend to block information that was once publicly available.

“This is a difficult question that state and federal agencies deal with on a regular basis,” said Loren Cochran, director of the Freedom of Information service center at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington.

“More and more information that was traditionally public is being reclassified as secret because it involves critical infrastructure,” he said.

“We always argue that government should err on the side of providing more information rather than less, especially information so critical to the public’s overall awareness of how government operates,” he said.

Kerley said that the public will still have access to information about bridge ratings and the definitions that explain why one structure may be rated higher than another.

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