In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the state Public Service Commission installed a policy to restrict public access to maps and other documents that show the locations of power lines, natural gas pipelines and water supplies.
The intent of the policy is obvious — to keep sensitive information about utility lines out of the hands of terrorists.
But critics say that despite good intentions, the policy conflicts with the state Freedom of Information Act. And even the man in charge of screening requests for utility maps, chief PSC counsel Richard Hitt, concedes the policy probably stretches the limits of the law.
"We got a little concerned after 9/11 to turn over information regarding locations of utility plants," said Hitt, head of the PSC legal division. "The commission decided to tighten that up and screen requests through a common person. That person is me."
Hitt said he, commission Chairman James Williams and executive secretary Sandra Squire devised the new informal policy. Unlike many commission actions, it was not approved by a formal order of the full three-person commission.
"I'm not sure it's even memorialized in a memo," he said, but after some checking, he found an April 2 e-mail from Squire to her staff, who field requests for information at the PSC's front desk on a daily basis.
The memo says, in part, "Materials to be considered sensitive include, but are not limited to, the following:
"Emergency response plans, specific information on distribution systems, maps, blueprints regarding access to water supplies, electric and gas transmission lines, lists of hazardous materials, or any other critical infrastructure information.
"I would ask that requests to view or for copies of security sensitive information be accepted only in writing and only from individuals with verified identification (i.e. valid driver's license).
"If you are processing a request which contains such material, and/or the request is suspicious, it should be presented to Rick Hitt for review before releasing said information."
In practice, Hitt said, the executive secretary's staff sends him an internal e-mail whenever it receives a request for sensitive information. "If it's someone I know, I'll say OK.
"Over 90 percent of the time it's lawyers checking on applications. The rest of the time it's the general public."
Hitt recalled two occasions when he did not approve a request on the spot.
"One time I got a call on a cell phone from Virginia. He was going to be in Charleston in four hours and wanted information on a gas utility — pipeline routes. It turned out it was someone interested in acquiring acreage in the area.
"Another time we got an e-mail requesting all the access roads to gas pipelines in Southern West Virginia. We never got a follow-up.
"I think by and large the policy has worked fairly well. The problem is, I think the process has bogged down a few times, once when I was on vacation. I mean, it's public information. We're just trying to have a little oversight."
Perhaps, but that worries public right-to-know advocates like Dawn Warfield, president of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.