ASA Statement and Resolution on Access to
Public Data Adopted by Council
The American Sociological Association appreciates that, in the fragile circumstances immediately after the September 11th terrorist attacks, government agencies saw the need to remove access to certain public data. The Association also understands that access to some information may require tighter controls. However, the extent of restrictions on environmental and public health information seems to exceed what is necessary for such ends and to result in denying access to essential information previously made available for research and public decisionmaking.
These government data have proven vitally important to public health professionals, policymakers, industry, and communities over the last 15 years. Such information restrictions also compromise the ability (or, in some cases, making it entirely impossible) for social scientists to examine associations among important variables, such as race, class, and gender, and technological risks.
Examples of environmental and public health information withholding include:
• The Landview IV website now says, “Access to the LandView demonstration file and the sale of the LandView product have been withdrawn temporarily as part of a government wide review of national security.” The Landview IV project is a joint project of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The program allows users to browse, map, and query records extracted from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Envirofacts Warehouse, demographic statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Decennial Census, and the USGS Geographic Names Information System.
• On Oct. 12th, the Federal Depository Libraries received a request, on behalf of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Associate Director for Water, to destroy all copies of a CD-ROM publication: Source area characteristics of large public surface water supplies I 19.76:99-248 USGS Open-File Report no. 99-248.
• The site for the National Transportation of Radioactive Materials at DOE was completely removed from the internet. This website allows community residents to learn more about radioactive materials that may be transported through their neighborhoods.
• The state of New Jersey removed chemical information from its web site. New Jersey is withholding Internet access to information — collected under its Community Right-to-Know Survey — on 30,000 private sector facilities that must report on chemical storage, including quantities and types of containers, for about 1,000 to 1,200 different chemicals.
• Risk Management Plans, which provide information about the dangers of chemical accidents and how to prevent them, were removed from the EPA web- site. EPA removed from its website Risk Management Plans (RMP) that are collected under the Section 112(r) of the Clear Air Act. These plans provide access to information about chemicals being used in plants: a hazard assessment, a prevention program, and an emergency response plan.
Additional examples and related information can be found at: http://www.mapcruzin.com/right-to-know-issues.htm.
WHEREAS, federal, state, and local governmental authorities are actively removing information from public access.
WHEREAS, access to data through the Freedom-of-Information Act (FOIA) has been further limited after a memorandum issued on October 12, 2001 by the Attorney General that instructed federal agencies to exercise greater caution in disclosing information requested under FOIA.
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED,
• that the American Sociological Association urges that immediate consideration be given to the rationale for restrictions on environmental and public health information by relevant Federal agencies and officials and by Members of Congress with jurisdiction over these matters;
• that recognized scientific, academic, and citizens organizations engaged in lawful use of such data be granted access to such information through data access provisions; and
• that an advisory committee on public access to environmental and public health data be formed, with representatives of the National Academy of Sciences, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other relevant agencies and organizations, to guide government agencies in maximizing reasonable public access.