Effort to limit notice of air pollution permits to agency’s website lacks transparency

An editorial from The Dominion Post

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Government secrets have never kept well in our country.

Newspapers helped see to that a long time ago and have provided easy access to public information ever since.

Then along came technology and the Internet, and that helped everyone know even more.

Of course, newspapers leveraged the Internet into electronic editions years ago, as well.

So now, everyone knows everything. Right? Wrong.

Admittedly, our newspaper was skeptical of the Internet at first in the early 1990s. After all, it took centuries for newspapers to earn a reputation as the best place to find the truth.

But within 20 years, smart phones and tablets were serving in place of newsprint for many readers’ go-to medium.

Yet, rather than one distancing or displacing the other, they have served to augment each other.

Most websites are still largely reliant on traditional newspapers for information, while the Internet has expanded newspapers’ circulation.

Still, some in government continue to be intent on relegating public information solely to the Internet.

Since at least 2007, when a bill was introduced in the Legislature to allow school districts to publish their budgets on the Internet in lieu of their local newspaper, these efforts have periodically cropped up. Fortunately, these efforts have quietly faded away.

Before anyone accuses us of putting self-interest before the public good, we admit that these legal notices supplement newspaper revenues.

But at the very same time, the ability of the public to easily access such information in newspapers is critical to the business of good government.

Public notices in newspapers have been an effective and inexpensive way to inform the public about budgets, permits, etc. for decades.

Recently, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Air Quality proposed a legislative rule change to allow this agency to restrict notice of permits for stationary air pollution to its website.

Currently, permit applications for new sources of air pollution must be published in a legal ad in a newspaper in the area of the proposed new source.

Make no mistake, we’re not arguing against putting that information on this agency’s web site; it already does.

But limiting access to this information to the Internet is not a legitimate substitute for printing it in newspapers.

Trading off the public at large’s right to know for such a small savings is a disturbing precedent.

Especially on a subject of such import as air pollution, with the inherent result that many people will only learn about it when they breathe it.

Letting agencies hide behind their websites only makes them less accountable, less accessible and apt to keep a secret.

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