Open the 'X-Files' on Telemecanique

COMMENT

September 10, 1995|By BRIAN SULLAM

My family watches very few television shows together, but each week we all gather in our family room to catch the latest episode of "The X-Files."

This quirky show on the Fox network is about the adventures of FBI agent Fox Mulder and his partner Dana Scully, who always find that a dark, sinister conspiracy in the top levels of the federal government thwarts their investigations into unexplained phenomena, particularly those cases contained in the highly confidential "X-Files."

Considering the way the commissioners of Carroll County have been treating the environmental files on the former Telemecanique property, one can't help but wonder whether those same dark forces have emerged from the television set and now are at work in Westminster.

The commissioners' refusal to date to release a 1994 consultant's environmental report on the property creates all sorts of unnecessary suspicions. When the commissioners suppress EMS Environmental Inc.'s evaluation of the well contamination or decline to discuss its contents, even the most trusting person begins to suspect that there may be more to this report than has been advertised.

In "The X-Files," people inside and outside the government drop hints about what explosive information these secret files contain. Despite their best efforts, these two investigators never get down to the bottom of the cases they handle. By the end of each episode there are more questions than answers.

Maybe we have to get Agent Mulder to come out to the County Office Building and investigate. The questionable files deal with contamination of a well on the former Telemecanique property that the county is negotiating to purchase as a headquarters for the Board of Education.

If, as the commissioners maintain, the environmental report says there is no threat to public health from the trichloroethene contamination in drinking water at the site, then they ought to let the consultant's study speak for itself.

If the consultant's conclusions were ambiguous, then people can read the report and make their own judgments about the potential dangers from this organic chemical. They also can draw some conclusions about the price the commissioners are willing to pay for the 25-acre parcel and 156,000-square-foot building.

Of course, there is a third possibility: The report concludes that a dangerous amount of contamination exists there. By keeping the study secret, the commissioners may believe they can keep a lid on that explosive finding.

Whatever the report's actual conclusions, the commissioners are making a fundamental political mistake when they say "trust us."

None of the commissioners has any expertise in chemical contamination of the environment. They will have to base their decisions on the expertise of others. The taxpayers have every right to hear what these various experts have to say. They can then judge for themselves whether the commissioners are making reasonable decisions.

But the commissioners undermine their own position when they offer flimsy reasons for keeping the environmental report secret.

Donald I. Dell doesn't want the report released because it will just stir up controversy, he says.

W. Benjamin Brown said knowledgeable county officials have told him that the trichloroethene contamination has been cleaned up to a level that is no longer dangerous.

As for Richard T. Yates, from his comments, it appears he has only the vaguest notion of what is at issue and what is at stake.

None of these reasons for suppressing the report are convincing. Mr. Dell's fear of controversy is misplaced. Virtually all important public decisions generate public debate. In a democracy, people should welcome -- rather than avoid -- a vigorous clash of opinions. Contentious discussions that take in a wide range of opinions produce better public policy.

Mr. Brown may be correct to rely on the assurances of staff and other experts. However, because the details about the clean-up effort by the Square D Co., the building's last tenant, have not been released, it is difficult to judge whether these experts came to reasonable conclusions.

If the commissioners believe that releasing this report might affect the value of the property, so be it. The free market can only operate efficiently as long as all the players have equal access to all the important information.

At present, it appears that the commissioners are bending over backward to favor the seller. Any information about contamination will likely lower the price of the property. However, since they are the buyers of the property, they seem to be acting against their own interests as well as those of the taxpayers they represent.

There is even a more simple and persuasive reason for releasing the report. Public funds paid for the environmental report, and the taxpayers of Carroll County should have access to the information it contains.

It is understandable that the producers of the "X-Files" devote considerable effort to sustain the secrecy theme; without it, there would be no rationale for the series. As long as the ratings are acceptable, they will keep the "X-Files" secret.

Keeping files secret is not helping the commissioner's ratings, however. They ought to open up before they find the voters canceling their performance.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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