The next time someone wants to scold you over the cost of an FOIA request, you need to ask him or her about Camelford. They may say: Where? What does that have to do with the time and effort it costs to respond to your request for information? You are wasting the taxpayer money with your request. Then you should gently remind them that the power of FOIA is that it makes power speak. The power of an organisation is silence. FOIA is the way to make power speak. It is a way to make power (and people) accountable. It is what makes democracy vibrant.
But what does this have to do with Camelford? What does this have to do with organisational silence killing people? When we wake up in the morning, we expect the electricity to work and the water to flow from the taps. We expect the water to be safe because the people providing it will be working for the common good not their personal good or the organisational good. We expect that if their personal or organisational good came into conflict with the public good, that they would choose the public good. Yet, this is not what happened in July 1988 in Camelford, Cornwall, which is why we need FOIA to be as strong as possible no matter the cost.
On 6 July 1988, 20,000 tonnes of aluminium sulphate were accidentally put into the town’s drinking water. By itself, the incident was problematic, but what made it worse was the water authority pursued a conscious strategy of silence. They went so far as to insist that the water was safe.
“The inquest was also read a statement from Barry Atkinson, who was the South West Water Authority’s regional water treatment scientist in 1988 but has since died. In it, he said: “Had we known the true cause at the time we would have had to shut down the reservoir and done all sorts of things. “It was unthinkable to assume something like that had happened. “We told the consumers the water would not do them any harm. I’m not sure that was thought through enough.””
The officers within the water authority knew something was wrong, but the executive decided not to tell the public. They told the officers to remain quiet. The South West Water Authority’s former chairman and chief executive Keith Court said the firm had not wanted to create “undue alarm” by telling people in the north Cornwall area what had happened. The staff were instead told ‘keep quiet’ over Camelford poisoning
Had the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) or the Freedom of Information (FOI) been in place then, there may have been a chance to ask questions that would have brought answers sooner. Moreover, officers inside the organisation might have seen the need, and opportunity, to disclose the information directly. Instead, they were hidden behind a wall of organisational silence. If someone had asked for water sampling reports or minutes of meetings, and witness statements, and water safety logs, the internal disclosure process, a different course of action might have been triggered. Instead, the public were told everything was ok, when it was not. As no one could force the Water Authority or the Council, which had been kept in the dark about it, to answer or ask such questions, the people drinking the water accepted what they had been told.
Although the scientific link to the death of one resident, is still being decided, the residents did suffer severe health reactions in the immediate aftermath of the event. Moreover, they were told that the water was safe when it was not. Officers were instructed to remain silent.
The power of government is silence. FOIA and EIR force it to speak. For some people, this may be unnerving or even threatening. Yet, it is the price of democracy and the joyful burden of public service. So, the next time someone tells you how much an FOIA request costs ask them what price they would put on safe drinking water. The next time you take a drink of water, think of Camelford and ask yourself whether you better off with or without something that can force an organisation to speak. Anything that limits the public’s ability to break the organisational silence and make the government speak is bad for democracy.
(This is based upon a section of my paper Making Power Speak: The Power of Freedom of Information from a Practitioner’s View which is available on the Social Science Research Network www.ssrn.com to download for free.)
- If a FOIA request costs £293, how much does it cost to answer a letter? (lawrenceserewicz.wordpress.com)
- Clean Water Clear Air … actions we must take now (cseaperkins.wordpress.com)