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The Planet

October 1997, Volume 4, number 8

The Scotch-Drinking, Smooth-Talking, Slightly
Unglamorous World of Searching Public Records

Jake Geddes (Jack Nicholson)
takes a trip to the Hall of Records
to gather the information he
needs to thwart the nefarious
Noah Cross in "Chinatown."

When Jack Nicholson's character in "Chinatown" suspected foul play and shady land purchases, he knew that even bad guys have to keep some kind of records; he headed for the Hall of Records and found that Noah Cross had been forcing drought-stricken farmers to sell their land so he could buy it up under the names of infirm (and sometimes dead) people.

The Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club has used a similar process to go after Doe Run Co. and Asarco, Inc., two lead-mining companies in Missouri. Both companies had sought permission to drill on state conservation land (which they have since withdrawn because of public outcry), and Doe Run has applied to the U.S. Forest Service for an exploratory drilling permit on national forest land.

Traci Hendrix, the chapter administrative assistant combed through the Southeast regional office of the Department of Natural Resources, pored over the compliance monitoring and enforcement files for the past 10 years and came back to the chapter office with more than 1,500 pages of documents detailing past violations by the two companies. She uncovered hundreds of violations of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The chapter has compressed these findings into one damning report and sent it to major state media outlets and to all the newspapers and radio stations in Missouri. The story captured headlines and editorials for several weeks.

You don't have to be a character in a film noir to take the Jack Nicholson/ Traci Hendrix approach to compliance investigation:

  • Buy a pad of paper and an ink pen (or a portable copier).

  • Make an appointment (by telephone) with your friendly neighborhood state compliance agency (such as the regional office of the Department of Natural Resources).

  • They'll ask why or for what. Say you are reviewing files for compliance history. Be selective and narrow so you can actually complete the task.

    Listen to the silence.

  • Jump on your bike or into your fuel-efficient car and zip over to the agency. Start looking through the files.

  • You'll be amazed. There will be expired permits for facilities still in operation, permits with violations, warning letters and letters assessing fines (but no evidence that the facility is in compliance) and letters between the agency and the polluter negotiating "terms" of compliance.

  • Local politicians will either be complicit in this or they will be outraged. If the latter, sign them up to speak at your press conference. If the former, target them at your press conference. Your members will provide excellent local color and commentary.

  • Write your scathing report and distribute it before the press conference. (You might want to release your report at the press conference. This is purely a matter of local preference.)

  • Get your state audit agency to review the files the agency hid when it heard the Sierra Club was invading. This might take legislation. If it does, the pitch is, "Who can oppose a study?"

  • When the official state agency audit report comes out, hold another press conference.

    This kind of search is a great project for volunteers or interns. And it creates all kinds of allies those who will want to hold the agency accountable, those who actually are in compliance and are angry at the scofflaws, taxpayer groups who think funding these bureaucrats is a waste of money and good-government types who just want the agency to do the right thing.

    One small caveat: Requests to view public records are handled differently from state to state and sometimes there is a fee. Get the procedural details from state officials or Sierra Club state lobbying offices. For a copy of the Club's findings, contact the Ozark Chapter's Columbia office at (573) 815-9250.

    Also, it's rare for activists to be threatened for exercising their right to know, but if you receive pressure to stop your activities, publicize it! Nothing makes our opponents look weaker than when they resort to strong-arm tactics with citizens who have a right to a safe, healthy environment.

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