I had intended to write last month on an issue related to public safety. But I got side-tracked due to the GM litigation and I didn’t do so. So I will write on it now. It involves the battle between the Alabama Gas Company (Alagasco) and the Montgomery Advertiser over whether some extremely important safety-related information should be made available for the people of Alabama. Alagasco fought hard to keep this information out of public view.
On Tuesday, Sept. 23, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert Vance issued an order to dissolve his previous temporary restraining order restricting the Montgomery Advertiser from publishing Alabama Gas Company documents that included plans for gas pipelines. The company’s Distribution Integrity Management Plan (DIMP) was released to the Advertiser by the Public Service Commission (PSC) as a matter of public record. But Alagasco objected to the report’s release, saying it was protected as a “matter of homeland security,” because it would reveal locations of critical natural gas infrastructure.
In his ruling lifting the restraint, Judge Vance called Alagasco’s fears that the documents might be used to aid plans for terrorism or sabotage “vague phantoms.” He said the court had made an error in issuing the restraining order, which he said was a prior restraint on free speech in violation of the First Amendment.
Following Judge Vance’s ruling, the Advertiser published information contained in the DIMP on its website as part of a story detailing the findings of a local and national investigation into the safety of cast-iron gas pipes. The paper, along with parent company Gannett and sister paper USA Today, is examining whether these types of pipes are at risk of cracking, which can result in fires and explosions. Alagsco maintains hundreds of miles of pipelines in service of its estimated 425,000 customers, mostly in central Alabama.
Alagasco offered to provide the Montgomery Advertiser with a redacted version of the DIMP, which it said still contained about 90 percent of the information found in the original document, but not information it felt was a risk to security. The newspaper rejected that offer, with Advertiser President and Publisher Robert Granfeldt, Jr., noting that it came too late, the night before the court’s hearing date. Evidently the Advertiser decided to take its chances in court. That was a good strategy for the paper, and it prevailed.
Dennis Bailey and Beth Bolger, lawyers with the Montgomery firm Ruston, Stakely, Johnson & Garrett, represented the Advertiser in the case. In a release issued by the Alabama Press Association, Dennis had this to say:
It was the first case in the 143-year history of the Alabama Press Association where a member newspaper had been subject to an order not to publish. The order issued by Judge Vance will be important and helpful to newspapers and media organizations for years to come.
The information the Advertiser sought and was able to publish dealt with an extremely significant safety issue affecting citizens of Alabama. Hopefully, Alagasco will remedy any hazardous conditions that potentially put lives at risk in Alabama. Judge Vance should be commended for correcting his error. The people of Alabama were the winners!
Sources: Al.com, Montgomery Advertiser, Insurance Journal, Alabama Press Association
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