The Right to Know!

Do you know how to file a “Right to Know” request? Do you know why you might want to know how to do this? Since the gas drilling in Pennsylvania has taken off at full speed many people are finding the “Open Records Law” , also known as the “Right to Know Law”, a necessary way to gain information from PA state agencies in regards to state funded research studies, procedures and incidents/accidents that have taken place and/or correspondence between a state agency (like the DEP) and a drilling company.
Passed by PA legislators in 2008, the “Right to Know Law” requires that local or state agency records be presumed public. This was done to shift the burden of proof from the public to the government. So now the government must offer a compelling reason why a record need be kept secret. An example of this would be to prevent the violation of a government employee’s personal privacy or the compromising of government security. This last example of security is a very broad term that has been used  to create a gray area where government agencies are choosing what they deem to be information that needs to be secured from the public. This is in part how many of us, myself included, who have been active in seeking information about the drilling industries have been added to the Homeland Security government watch lists, but that topic will have to be a soap box for another day.
You can find “Right to Know” request forms at this website http://openrecords.state.pa.us and you can submit forms online or by email to  openrecords@state.pa.us
If you are mailing your form the old school way, via USPS, you can send it to:
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Office of Open Records
Commonwealth Keystone Building
400 North Street, 4th Floor
Harrisburg, PA 17120-0225
Some details to know after you’ve filed for information. The Office of Open Records has 5 days to reply to your request. This does not mean they need to provide you with the information you requested within those 5 days, and they often respond with a letter explaining that they have 30 more days to get the information you asked for to you. I suppose they have a lot of files to search through and a lot of folks filing for info at this point….After the initial 5 days and after the secondary 30 days they must provide you with the requested info or you can then file an appeal from the same site, http://openrecords.state.pa.us. The appeal must be filed within 15 days of the mailing days of the agencies response of within 15 days of the agencies missed deadline to respond to your request.
I know many of you have filed for information and there have been a lot of questions about how much time the Open Records Office actually has to get back to you with information. I hope this helps to clear some of that up and encourages those of you who are unfamiliar with this process to participate in it if you are seeking information about yourself or incidents in your area.
Here’s some helpful info to get you started.
What agencies can you request information from?
The Right to Know Law applies to all state agencies (DEP, DCNR, Labor and Industry, etc) the PA General Assembly (Senate and House of Representative) and state-related institutions, such as Penn State University. It also applies to the finacial records of PA courts and to all local agencies, including town councils, water and sewer authorities, school boards and zoning boards.
Example of records that are public: Name, title and salary of public officials and employees. Finalized agency meeting minutes. Communicatins between lobbyists and legislators. 911 time response logs, Internal emails.
Example of records that are not public: Social Security, driver license or employee numbers. Personal financial information. Autopsy report information other than name, cause and manner of death. Home addresses of law enforcement and judges, etc.

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Do ‘Environmental Extremists’ Pose Criminal Threat to Gas Drilling?

by Abrahm Lustgarten Sept 8th, 2010

As debate over natural gas drilling in the Marcellus shale reaches a fever pitch, state and federal authorities are warning Pennsylvania law enforcement that “environmental extremists” pose an increasing threat to security and to the energy sector. A confidential intelligence bulletin sent from the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security to law enforcement professionals in late August says drilling opponents have been targeting the energy industry with increasing frequency and that the severity of crimes has increased.

A pro-drilling group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, characterized the vandalism in Pennsylvania as “directed at preventing our industry from safely delivering these resources to Pennsylvanians.” The group’s president, Kathryn Klaber, said she supported civil debate over drilling, “but to the extent they go in the other direction, and potentially devolve in a manner that undermines our ability to keep our folks safe, then we will have a problem,” she said.

 
It warns of “the use of tactics to try to intimidate companies into making policy decisions deemed appropriate by extremists,” and states that the FBI — the source of some of the language in the Pennsylvania bulletin — has “medium confidence” in the assessment. A spokesman for the FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The advisory, a copy of which was obtained by ProPublica, doesn’t cite the specific incidents causing concern. It is also unclear from accounts from state law enforcement officials whether the incidents in Pennsylvania posed a substantial threat, or what effect the advisory might have on public gathering and the debate over drilling in the state. Pennsylvania State Police said there have been only a few isolated crimes involving drilling facilities.

“We haven’t had any incidents of any significance to date where we have identified a problem, or any environmental extremists,” said Joseph Elias, a captain with the Pennsylvania State Police Domestic Security Division, which was not involved in issuing the bulletin.

An aide to Gov. Ed Rendell — speaking on behalf of the state’s Homeland Security Office — said the advisory was based on five recent vandalism incidents at drilling facilities, including two in which a shotgun was reportedly fired at a gas facility. “All this security bulletin does is raise awareness of local officials. It doesn’t accuse anyone of local activity,” said the spokesman, Gary Tuma. “Where the professionals detect a pattern that may pose a threat to public safety, they have a responsibility to alert local law enforcement authorities and potential victims.”

Anti-drilling activists in the state say that public hearings and other events have been peaceful and that they see no evidence of violent opposition. Given the lack of evidence about “extremist” crimes, they say, the bulletin casts drilling opponents as criminals and threatens to stifle open debate.

“It may very well be designed to chill peoples’ very legitimate participation in public decision making,” said Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with Earthjustice, a national group pressing for stronger environmental protections. “If people who have concerns fear that they are going to be treated as a security threat they may very well be afraid to go and express their views.”

The advisory lists a series of public hearings on drilling permit issues across the state as potential flash points. It also mentions a Sept. 3 screening of the anti-drilling film “Gasland” in Philadelphia that went off without incident. Language describes “environmental activists and militants” on one side of the debate and “property owners, mining and drilling companies” on the other.

Finally, the bulletin groups the public hearings and film screening with protest rallies for anarchist clubs focused on “evading law enforcement,” and with a Muslim advocacy group’s rally for the release of suspects in an alleged terror plot at Fort Dix, N.J.

The advisory was sent to state law enforcement and local government groups, as well as businesses with a specific concern addressed in the bulletin. It was not intended to be distributed to the public.

To read the full ProPublica article cited above, with all its active hyperlinks,  click here:
To read the report cited in this article that wan’t supposed to be made public  (PENNSYLVANIA INTELLIGENCE BULLETIN NO. 131 PENNSYLVANIA INTELLIGENCE BULLETIN NO. 131

In issuing such an advisory, the government has to walk a fine line between the need to respect the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and the need to keep the public safe, said Nathan Sales, an assistant law professor at George Mason University and a former policy development staffer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “The question is how to accomplish the one with minimal consequences to the other,” he said.