The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
November/December 2003

Access still denied

LAST YEAR, IN "ACCESS DENIED"

(March/April 2002), Brian Costner and Paul Rogers chronicled the shutdown of public access to previously unrestricted documents from the Energy Department and other federal agencies. After almost two years, little has been done to return information to the public domain.

My chronic beryllium disease was diagnosed in 1993, and soon after I began researching the illness and conditions that caused it. One of my best resources was Energy's Oak Ridge Public Reading Room (www.oro.doe.gov/Foia/DOE_Public_Reading_Room.htm) and its volumes of information released under Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's declassification efforts.

As my quest expanded into information concerning other illnesses, and as the roots of the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA) emerged, the information became invaluable as a reference and database.

Before the attacks on September 11, 2001, this Web site held more than 10,000 beryllium-related documents alone. Thousands more were specific to other potential health hazards, including radiation, mercury, and nickel. Information was available from dozens of other sites, including Hanford, Washington; Paducah, Kentucky; the Argonne Lab outside Chicago; and Rocky Flats, near Denver.

Following September 11, the Oak Ridge Web site was shut down, and the documents withheld pending review. This has happened in parallel with the flood of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for employment records and medical information needed to file EEOICPA claims.

Locally, the FOIA office, normally responsive to requests, has been bogged down by sheer volume and a reduction in personnel. These circumstances have left petitioners with the old familiar feeling that information is being hidden behind a veil of national security.

Interestingly, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is currently completing its public comment period on the possible reduction of allowable beryllium exposure limits in private industry. Energy recently lowered exposure limits by a factor of 10 (Beryllium Rule, 10 CFR 850), and other government agencies are expected to follow. The public docket on OSHA's Web site contains scores of the very documents which were removed from the Reading Room Web site.

Documents that link a particular job or material to a specific building or location receive particular scrutiny. Energy is concerned that documents of this type may involve classified information or could present targeting information to terrorists. However, the same information is requested of EEOICPA claimants in a dose-reconstruction telephone interview, which determines the work-relatedness of cancer claims.

For those of us still holding "Q" clearances and working in Energy's weapons complex, as well as attempting to aid EEOICPA claimants, this is a confusing and frustrating situation.

Glenn Bell
Oak Ridge, Tennessee