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Catch-22 means you don't know the hazards anymore

May 30, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
In “Catch-22,” author Joseph Heller conjured up a lasting image of bureaucratic impotence, the ultimate circular pile of logic from which there is no escape.

In summary, the catch was that anyone who felt like he was going crazy and didn’t want to fly any more bombing missions in World War II could ask to be grounded. But by asking to be grounded the person was showing proof of a certain level of sanity, which meant he was not crazy enough to be grounded and thus had to keep flying.

Thanks to laws enacted decades apart, people have the right to know only what they already know enough to ask about when it comes to hazardous materials storage. You can only find out if you already know. Catch-22.

There once was a time when, back in the wonderful 1980s, when really advanced fire departments in the area had early Mac computers with disk drive slots in their fronts, emergency planning and information was public. If you asked. I remember asking for our county’s emergency plan, and talking with fire departments about how they were trying to develop attack plans for responses in places where various hazards are stored in the area.

The Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act, which came about in the 1980s and I think was the topic of that long-ago story I did, tried to push to openly tell folks what was stored in their community or near their homes. It came in the wake of the fertilizer leak in Bophal, India, back in the early 1980s, that pretty much killed a village, as well as a leak in West Virginia that led to an evacuation.

Nowadays, such information is not necessarily public from state to state and locality to locality.

The Associated Press tried to find out what is stored where across the nation as a followup to the blast at the fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas, in April. What it found was a patchwork of regulations on what can be told to the public, overlain by security concerns in interpreting a 2007 federal law.

From states that actually make such data available, AP found 600,000 people live within a quarter mile of such facilities nationally. Ohio is among states that refused to provide data to the AP’s reporters, citing the risk of terror attacks and an interpretaton of federal law about the right to know.

Policy, or at least those handling it or hiding behind it, now is more afraid of terrorism than an informed ctizenry. A 2007 federal law intended to protect chemical plants from terrorists is used as a way to shield release of information about stored hazards, including ammonium nitrate, which can be a fertilizer, a hazardous explosion waiting to happen or, in the hands of nuts like Tim McVeigh, a heck of a rental-truck bomb.

Hawaii’s responses to the AP survey put the “Catch-22” right up front. Hawaii requires people to file a “need-to-know” form, to prove they are qualified to get the information from the state. That means they already know enough to ask for the information, which means they probably already know enough about what is there.

A former Homeland Security official said that’s a misinterpretation of the 2007 law that states are using as an excuse for not providing data.

But the attitude is the priceless real embodiment of the creation of the mind of novelist Joseph Heller.

One bureaucrat in Hawaii said people deserve to know what is in their neighborhoods, “but I’m not going to let you tell them.”

Sleep well. You know not what surrounds you.

That’s some catch.


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