Two weeks after the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette revealed that an unknown number of Beaufort County homes lack access to fire hydrants, the utility that maintains the majority of the county's hydrants has clarified why it will not release comprehensive data on hydrant locations: the risk of bioterrorism.
Experts in public records say the utility's explanation — that terrorists might use the data to contaminate the water system — is far-fetched.
"This appears to me to be an obvious pretext for avoiding disclosure of information," said Wallace Lightsey, a Greenville attorney who has represented the Associated Press and the New York Times Company in public records disputes.
Meanwhile, elected officials on Beaufort County Council are split on whether to release hydrant locations.
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Without the requested data, it's impossible to determine the precise number of Beaufort County communities at risk. A countywide analysis could be an important way to inform citizens about how well their local governments are prepared to respond to public safety disasters, said Adam Marshall, the Knight Foundation litigation attorney at the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.
"The way that a government proportions and distributes resources, or how well they meet community needs — especially when it comes to public safety — is, of course, in the public interest," Marshall said.
The only way residents can find out where their nearest fire hydrant location is is by contacting their fire district or water utility or by scouting out the nearest hydrant themselves.
When Beaufort County denied the newspapers' request for the information, they deferred to Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority. The authority, a public nonprofit created by the state legislature that installed and maintains the majority of the county's hydrants, declined to provide the information for the original story and has denied a second request.
The authority's representatives invited a reporter to look at a map of the water line and hydrant system. They also provided the newspapers with a general map of the utility's water service areas. However, they did not provide comprehensive data of hydrant locations that could be used for analysis.
"Our concern is always for the security and safety of our customers," said Pam Flasch, authority spokesperson.
When asked about the likelihood that Beaufort County was at risk of contamination or bioterrorism, Sarah Linkimer, the authority's deputy general manager, said she could not recall any credible threats.
If comprehensive information on hydrants and water lines were open to the public, Linkimer said, that data could get into the wrong hands.
"I understand that the likelihood for potential terrorists to do harm to Beaufort County is so remote, it's almost laughable," said Councilman Brian Flewelling. But, he added, "I do see it as a slight security issue."
Since fire hydrants are already clearly visible, Flewelling said, "all you have to do is drive around and find them."
Although the Water and Sewer Authority argued that releasing the information is a matter of protecting public safety, "it turns out that it's the exact opposite," said Carl Muller, an attorney in Greenville who has represented The Island Packet previously. "People need to know whether or not they have fire hydrant issues."
The law from 2002 cited by the authority requires that water utilities must conduct vulnerability assessments for their water systems, and those vulnerability assessments do not have to be released to the public.
Flasch argued hydrant locations are part of the overall water system and therefore part of those vulnerability assessments. Releasing that information would be like "handing over a blueprint," Flasch said.
But Lightsey said the provision cited "has absolutely nothing to do with" releasing information on fire hydrant locations.
"I think they're misapplying the law," said Bill Rogers, head of the South Carolina Press Association. "Not giving the location of fire hydrants, that's ridiculous."
Of the 10 Beaufort County council members who responded to request for comment, four said it should be public information; four said sharing that information would be a security threat and two did not provide direct responses.
Councilman Stephen Fobes said he thought the information should be public, but that he would have to hear more information from the authority about why that information should be confidential.
"We should have information about which parts of the county are lacking hydrants," Fobes said. "It's a problem for everyone."
But other council members said they understood why the authority did not give the information.
"If the water company thinks there is a security risk, I would probably be foolish to second-guess them," said Councilman Rick Caporale.
Of the two who did not provide direct answers, Councilman York Glover said county council should look into it, while Councilman Stewart Rodman said the county government should have no role in the issue.
Councilman Gerald Dawson, whose represents part of Burton, which is lacking in hydrants, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Where do Beaufort County council members stand?
Gerald Lawson, District 1: Did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Paul Sommerville, District 2, for protecting fire hydrant data: "Security is an issue ... I understand why people would want to be protective of water lines. I don't need to know where the fire hydrants are all over the county. I just need to know where the fire hydrants are near me. "
York Glover Sr., District 3: "It's something that should be addressed, and it's something that maybe Beaufort County Council should work with Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority to figure out."
Alice Howard, District 4, for protecting fire hydrant data: "I do understand their reluctance (to release information) in today's world."
Brian Flewelling, District 5, for protecting fire hydrant data: "I understand that the likelihood for potential terrorists to do harm to Beaufort County is so remote, it's almost laughable. But I do see it as a slight security issue."
Jerry Stewart, District 6, for releasing fire hydrant data: "f you can ride down the street and find them, I don't understand why it's a secret."
Michael Covert, District 7, for releasing fire hydrant data: "I would expect it to be public ... I understand the concern about bioterrorism, but when it comes to fire hydrants, that's a public safety thing."
Rick Caporale, District 8, for protecting fire hydrant data: "If the water company thinks there is a security risk, I would probably be foolish to second-guess them."
Tabor Vaux, District 9, for releasing fire hydrant data: "Fire hydrants are clearly marked. It just doesn't make sense, if you can ride down the road and you can see them."
Steven Fobes, District 10, for releasing fire hydrant data: "I guess I would like to hear more from Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority about why that information should be confidential. We should have information about which parts are lacking; It's a problem for everyone."
Stewart Rodman, District 11: "I don't know that council has a role in that."