Fresh off the Oroville Dam crisis, California lawmakers on Thursday voted to make dam-safety plans secret through language that was quietly inserted into a budget-related bill.
The legislation, which requires Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature before becoming law, says emergency action plans at dams would be kept confidential to “protect public safety.”
Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, said slipping the language into a budget-related bill, Senate Bill 92, without debate was “kind of insulting, really” to the 188,000 evacuees such as him who were forced to flee their homes for two days after the near-failure of Oroville’s emergency spillway.
A Brown administration official took issue with the notion that the language wasn’t open for discussion and review. Brown spokesman Gareth Lacy said the language has been in Brown’s budget proposal since March.
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“That some did not read it doesn’t make it secret,” he said in an email.
The language is included in one of several so-called budget trailer bills that carry out policy embodied in the main spending bill for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Trailer bills often involve significant policy changes. And unlike non-budget, majority-vote bills that go through a months-long hearing process, trailer bills typically involve much less review and take effect immediately.
Identical trailer bills with the public records exemption became public Saturday in the Assembly and Monday in the Senate.
David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the legislation achieved “anti-transparency language in an anti-transparency way.”
“None of this language went through any sort of committee process. No one had the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons” of the proposal, he said, describing it as a “blanket confidentiality provision.” “The health of the dams in this state … is an issue of intense public concern.”
The additional layer of secrecy comes as the state Department of Water Resources already files its emergency plans for Oroville Dam with federal regulators under seal, through a provision that makes secret “critical energy infrastructure information.”
The 109-page legislation touches on dozens of state programs. Midway through, it strikes the state’s existing dam-flood “inundation map” requirements and replaces it with new rules requiring emergency action plans. Dam owners, for example, would have to conduct annual emergency exercises.
The legislation also adds provisions meant to strengthen the state’s evaluation of dam safety. Dams, for example, would be classified based on their risk.
On the legislation’s second-to-last page, it says the required emergency action plans would be kept confidential to “protect public safety.”
“An emergency action plan contains a blueprint for emergency response following an incident involving a dam and details various failure scenarios of a dam and its related critical infrastructure,” the bill reads.
“An emergency action plan also includes specific notification procedures and information about local emergency management officials, such as their personal identifying information. To keep this information from individuals with improper motivations who could use the information maliciously to expose a dam’s vulnerabilities and to disrupt a critical emergency response, it is in the state’s interest to limit public access to this information.”
The Brown administration called for the records exclusion on the last page of draft trailer bill language posted in March shortly after Brown unveiled its dam-safety and flood-protection plan. Legislative budget hearing agendas do not include a mention of the administration’s proposal to make the plans confidential.
The latest secrecy language is the latest in a tug of war between the state and members of the public over Oroville Dam records.
The state has denied The Sacramento Bee’s requests for certain technical documents and dam safety records. The agency also hasn’t yet fulfilled a request the paper made in February seeking emails from top water officials during the spillway crisis. Brown’s office also denied certain internal communications and emails from the governor’s staff. Those records could show how Brown and his top staff members were coordinating the ongoing crisis with each other, with outside agencies and with members of the public.
State officials say the state is reassessing some of The Bee’s requests. Last week, a Northern California activist group sued state officials, alleging they were illegally withholding information about potentially toxic asbestos around the dam.
Oroville Dam’s main flood control spillway cracked in two Feb. 7, leaving an enormous chasm that hindered water releases and eventually triggered the evacuations.
Gallagher, the Republican assemblyman who represents the Oroville area, said the crisis showed why safety plans need to be open to the public. He said state dam managers seemed unsure of what to do, and it ended up being the Butte County sheriff who made the “critical decision” to order an evacuation.
“So there’s clearly problems with the emergency action plan at the dam that we need to improve and change,” Gallagher said, “But they’re going shield it from public review and criticism.”