James Shiffer, reporter and editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune; Tisha Thompson, investigative reporter at WTTG Fox 5 in Washington, D.C.; and Jaimi Dowdell, IRE training director and former computer-assisted reporting editor at St. Louis Post-Dispatch, discussed how to use FOI to inform the public about infrastructure issues. Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, moderated. Here are some notes from their session at the 2009 NFOIC Summit:
Lessons from the Minneapolis I-35W Bridge collapse:
- The Minneapolis I-35W Bridge collapsed at 6:05 p.m. a couple blocks from the Star Tribune office. James Shiffer said the Star Tribune had a suspicion that there was something in the bridge's history that would explain why the collapse occurred. Reporters used the National Bridge Inventory database as the basis for a front-page story. The bridge had been declared structurally deficient as recently as 2005.
- On Aug. 2, the paper filed its two first formal requests related to inspection and maintenance records. Reporters followed up with four additional requests that month about contractors who worked on the bridge. Minnesota Government Data Practices Act requires that relevant corporate records of government contractors are public.
- The conclusion was that the bridge had a design defect dated back 40 years. However, the paper did get Missouri Department of Transportation to acknowledge that part of it was bent. This was visible in photos, and at least one inspection noted the bending. You didn't have to be an engineer to notice.
- This was the most studied bridge in Minnesota. A Star Tribune columnist pointed out that when it was announced that a bridge had collapsed, a lot of people probably didn't have to ask which one.
- The Minnesota Department of Transportation was bombarded with records requests from journalists, lawyers, construction companies and victims. The organization did a good job early on in putting the inspection reports online. They couldn't argue that the information was protected because of homeland security. The bridge was gone.
- Shiffer said MDOT was not good at providing notes, photos and internal documents. The newspaper gave MDOT a draft lawsuit, which got them going. The excuse was that the inspectors were too busy making sure other bridges were safe to answer questions or find records. You want us to do our jobs, right? they asked. Four months later, MDOT dumped data online, but the system was difficult to use. The newspaper reporters were not allowed into the office to view the files.
- The National Transportation Safety Board completed its report, which included citations of documents and memos that MDOT hadn't turned over to the Star Tribune via FOIA and hadn't released on its database.
- Jaimi Dowdell said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch used bridge databases to conduct its own analysis the first day after the collapse. Then, reporters began analyzing similar St. Louis bridges by requesting audit and inspection records.
- Tisha Thompson noted that agencies shut down records after the Minnesota bridge collapse. They realized that the records tattled on them.
- From FOIA documents, Tisha Thompson reported on a Kentucky bridge with rusted bolts and rotten pillars and rails, a Baltimore bridge with loose timber beginning to decay and a D.C. bridge with a tree growing out of its side. (The tree was slowly pulling the bridge apart.)
- Thompson says stories on bridges and dams are the easiest to do because there are federal inspection requirements.
- When a dam broke in St. Louis, Jaimi Dowdell's team did an immediate story based on the National Inventory of Dams database. They then requested reports from state studies. In doing so, they found a state clause that sets up an agricultural exemption for dams to be inspected. So many dams were not being inspected because they were under a certain height. It turned into a watchdog story. You never know where FOI paths can take you.
- The dam database has been shut down to the public. It doesn't have data after 2002 because of homeland security concerns.
- Access to records often depends on the agency and who's in charge. Thompson recalled that Virginia shut down records on all 13,000 of its bridges because of homeland security. She had no problems getting dam inspection reports from dams. It was the opposite in Maryland.
- Thompson couldn't get data on a small bridge in the middle of nowhere because of homeland security concerns. Only 72 people passed over the bridge in a day. She explained the ridiculousness of this excuse. The furthest she got was being allowed to view documents in the office. She was not allowed to photocopy them.
- Thompson said that although agencies fought her on the data on the bridges, they replaced every bridge she covered.
- James Shiffer described one of his reporters who talked to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers concern a dam that the Minnesota hoped to get stimulus money to rebuild. The reporter got full access to inspection reports because the state wanted it fixed. However, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers refused to speak with the reporter regarding another dam next to the Ford Plant that might have water seeping underneath it. The corp used the homeland security excuse. Eventually an interview was reluctantly arranged.