Thursday, December 2, 2010

Indian Island U.S. Supreme Court Case

An issue related to Indian Island south of Port Townsend was taken up by the United States Supreme Court yesterday. I previously did a short post on Indian Island HERE. As noted nearly the entirety of Indian Island is owned by the Navy. A loading facility is located approximately two miles across the water from the City of Port Townsend and residences on Marrowstone Island are less than one mile from Indian Island.

Loading crane at Navy weapons depot facility on Indian Island can be seen from
this view from Tamanowas Rock east of Chimacum.

The issue was a public information request by Glenn Scott Milner for a map showing the Explosive Safety Quantity Distance for the Naval Weapons Depot on Indian Island. The Navy declined to provide him the map citing an exemption in the law. Mr. Milner claims that exemption is being misapplied.

Congress did allow exemptions from public information requests and the issue is whether or not the denial by the Navy meets the exemption Congress provided. The Navy could have classified the map, but did not. In fact they gave the map to the local emergency responders. It is a good idea for local emergency responders to know just what sort of materials might be present in case of a fire or other emergency (see more below). Because the map was not classified, local responders provided the map to the newspapers. But the concern is that operations could change and the public may be unaware of the risk posed by the weapons depot.

The issue has moved up through the Federal Court system until it was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday. Dave Mann argued the case for Mr. Milner and numerous media interests had filed supporting arguments as the media tends to like open transparent government. I will note I had the pleasure of once working with Mr. Mann as an expert witness on a case.

I did find a few gems in the transcript of the oral arguments.

Judge Beyer stated "They want firemen to have then (the maps), but they do not want people who might blow them up to have them."

Of course this could be turned into "They don't want people that might be blown up to have them (the maps)."

Mr. Mann responded with "We are talking about public waterways, private land around the base and whether or not that land stays secure." In this regard Mr. Mann raises how this issue can impact the landscape.

A number of industries are required to provide hazard maps associated with explosive or dangerous materials stored or used on their sites. I do know that these industries do not always like putting these maps out and they note concerns about being terrorist targets if terrorists know the damage a release or explosion at the plant may cause.

Locating facilities that have highly explosive materials or toxic chemicals away from population centers is one means of reducing risk. And avoiding locating homes near such facilities is the other half of reducing the risk. A large oil refinery in Whatcom County has purchased significant swaths of land around the refinery to limit development from being located within potential danger areas. This approach has protected significant wildlife habitat that would otherwise not have been protected.

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