- Associated Press - Thursday, September 18, 2014

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - A state court judge sided with Alabama Gas Corp. and blocked the Montgomery Advertiser from publishing information about the utility’s plan for gas line safety, which the Alabama Public Service Commission released through an open records request.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert S. Vance granted a request by Alagasco to temporarily prevent the Montgomery Advertiser from publishing information from the plan. Court records show Vance ruled a week ago - on the same day Alagasco made the request to block publication - before the newspaper had a chance to respond.

The paper has since objected to the ban, and Vance issued an order Thursday saying he would hold a hearing Monday on whether his order should stand.

Alagasco has about 425,000 customers in the state, mostly in central Alabama, and hundreds of miles of pipe lines. The Advertiser reported Wednesday it asked the PSC for a copy of the company’s Distribution Integrity Management Plan as part of a wider pipe safety project by USA Today, which like the Advertiser is owned by Gannett.

Alagasco filed suit claiming the document, which contains proprietary and safety-related information, was released without required notification to the company. Vance temporarily blocked publication of the material in an order that said the utility has a “reasonable chance” of winning its claim that the document shouldn’t be made public.

The newspaper refused requests by the utility that it return the document, court records show.

The newspaper argued in court documents that Vance’s ban on publication is a case of unconstitutional prior restraint, in which the government blocks information from being published. Also, it said, much of the information in the plan already is available publicly.

“The bulk of it is things that are already out there on their website,” Executive Editor Tom Clifford told The Associated Press on Thursday.

But the utility said release of details contained in the document could endanger public safety since it shows exact locations of critical natural gas infrastructure.

“This is not a freedom of the press issue. It is a matter of homeland security and what is properly obtainable under Alabama law,” Alagasco said in statement posted on its website.

Vance ruled the gas company could be harmed by the release of information in the plan than the newspaper would be hurt by temporarily delaying publication.

Angier Johnson, a spokeswoman for the utility-regulating PSC, did not respond to an email with questions about the release of the document to the newspaper.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has required the safety plans for gas distribution pipeline systems since 2011.

John Kelly, data and investigations editor with USA Today, told AP reporters have had “typical difficulties” in some states obtaining information about the plans, and none elsewhere.

“However, no other utility has gone so far as to seek a court’s order to prevent us from publishing information contained in a public document that we obtained from a state government agency,” he said.

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