Why is the state withholding asbestos records at Oroville Dam?

6.7.2017– By Ryan Sabalow 

In the latest skirmish over transparency at the troubled Oroville Dam, a Northern California activist group has sued state officials alleging they’re illegally withholding information about potentially toxic asbestos.

AquAlliance, a Chico-based advocacy group focused on Sacramento Valley water issues, filed a lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court on Tuesday alleging the Department of Water Resources broke state records laws when it denied the group’s request for emails containing information about the asbestos at the dam. The state did release nine documents, the group said, but not the relevant emails.

The suit claims the DWR told the group the records didn’t exist or were protected from disclosure by attorney-client privilege. The group’s executive director, Barbara Vlamis, said she has no idea whether there is anything in the records that could show the state is putting the public at risk, but she doesn’t like the idea of the state hiding information.

“There may be nothing damning at all in the material,” she said. “Well, then, let’s see it.”

An Oroville Dam spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Asbestos occurs naturally in certain types of rock around Northern California, but DWR officials have insisted since crews began working on the troubled dam’s badly damaged spillways this winter that there’s no risk to the public. The agency says it’s also taking steps to keep asbestos dust out of the lungs of those working on the dam.

The suit is the latest in a tug of war between the state and members of the public over Oroville Dam records.

The state has denied the Sacramento Bee’s requests for certain technical documents and dam safety records. The agency also hasn’t yet fulfilled a request the paper made in February seeking emails from top DWR officials during the spillway crisis that triggered the evacuation of 188,000 people.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalowrsabalow@sacbee.com