Left-Wing Environmental Groups Demand Public Records That Aren't Really Public


There are two left-wing environmental groups in North Dakota who are making a stink about radioactive material produced in the oil drilling process. One is the Dakota Resource Council, and the other is the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition headed by Darrel Dorgan, brother to former North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan.

These groups have as their goal, I believe, not so much protecting the environment as slowing or halting fossil fuel energy development in the state by any means necessary. In fact, Dorgan wrote a column published in the media earlier this year in which he suggested that western North Dakota might be in danger of becoming a “superfund site.”

Anyone in touch with reality is aware of just how ludicrous a charge that is (read this).

But, again, the goal of these groups isn’t environmental safety. Their goal is political, and so making headlines is a must. One way to do that is to make outrageous claims of environmental devastation for the media. Another is to manufacture controversies painting state officials as keeping pertinent facts out of the public’s eye.

At issue is a draft report commissioned by the Health Department from Argonne National Laboratories pertaining to radioactive oilfield waste. The Dakota Resource Council and Dorgan’s group say they want it public. The Health Department says they don’t have to release the report until it is finalized.

Who is right? It seems the Health Department has the right of it, and the law is pretty clear. From 44-04-18 of the North Dakota Century Code:

7. It is not an unreasonable delay or a denial of access under this section to withhold from the public a record that is prepared at the express direction of, and for presentation to, a governing body until the record is mailed or otherwise provided to a member of the body or until the next meeting of the body, whichever occurs first. It also is not an unreasonable delay or a denial of access to withhold from the public a working paper or preliminary draft until a final draft is completed, the record is distributed to a member of a governing body or discussed by the body at an open meeting, or work is discontinued on the draft but no final version has been prepared, whichever occurs first.

In other words, what the Health Department is doing is perfectly legal.

It’s also pretty reasonable. I’ve got a pretty lengthy track record when it comes to winning open records complaints, but this isn’t something I’d file a complaint over. It makes sense that a state agency should be allowed to actually finish a report before it gets released to the public and the media. If our goal is an informed public, then putting before the public data that is incomplete or lacks necessary context is irresponsible.

I suspect Mr. Dorgan and the Dakota Resource Council knows this, but again their goals are political. What they want are negative headlines for state officials they feel aren’t nearly hostile enough to fossil fuel energy development, and in that they’re successful.