An El Paso Times story last month revealed the existence of numerous aerial photos of flood-related oil spills on a state-run website. The response from the state of Texas was predictable, yet still disappointing:
State officials ordered the photos removed from a website operated by the University of Texas at Austin.
The photos, which weren’t generally known to the public until the Times’ story, showed potential environmental damage caused by flooding in oil-drilling areas, including fracking sites.
The photos provided useful information, particularly to people who live in or near the affected watersheds. But a state official said the photos were meant to be used by emergency management personnel in real-time settings.
“In consultation with UT staff, the photos have been removed from the public domain, as they are not vetted for privacy concerns or related issues in real-time when uploaded during an emergency,” Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger said.
“Emergency officials will continue to have access to the photos for disaster-related and the public and media may still request access to the photos through the Public Information Act.”
Ken Kramer, water resources chairman of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the photos are of interest to the public. He was skeptical about the unspecified privacy concerns raised by state officials.
“The public has a right to know about flooding events that could pose a threat to their health and their environment,” Kramer said.
“Removing air surveillance photos of floods of oil and gas facilities from public access is a blow to transparency and accountability. It’s ridiculous to say that this was done for privacy concerns.”
We agree with Kramer.
For one thing, the stance by DPS perpetuates a repeated misunderstanding about the Texas Public Information Act by government officials.
The Public Information Act is the floor when it comes to government accountability, meaning it sets the minimum standards that governments must follow in being transparent. But governments too often — including in this case — treat the Public Information Act as the ceiling when it comes to transparency.
Simply saying that Texans can access the spill photos by using an often cumbersome open records process is not as transparent as making the photos readily available on a state website.
If the state wants to review the photos for privacy concerns, they can do so and then post the photos on the UT website.
Texas regulators have long had a cozy relationship with industry, particularly with the oil and gas business.
The decision to remove the photos from public view appears to be an effort to hide visuals that don’t portray the energy business in a flattering light.
We urge DPS to reconsider its decision to order the wholesale removal of the photos.
If the photos are subject to the Public Information Act, make them accessible rather than forcing the public to go through hoops to see them.
This editorial was published May 25 in the El Paso Times. See more photos at http://tinyurl.com/hf6j23v.