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TRUTH, OPENNESS ALWAYS BEST

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Trying to wring information out of the military, particularly if it is negative in nature, is like trying to squeeze water from a rock. The first military instinct is to deny, the second is to bury any offending data out of public view.

One is reminded of this tendency after the Air Force Audit Agency inspected 13 bases - including Hill Air Force Base - and concluded last March that federal laws on pollution and hazardous waste were not being complied with.The study said it would take $3.3 billion and 25 years to clean up Air Force hazardous waste sites nationwide.

While this is certainly interesting, particularly to people who might live around those bases, the Pentagon quietly buried the results of the study. It took a formal request by the Deseret News through the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a copy of the report.

This does not mean the Air Force is ignoring the pollution and waste problems that were uncovered. Far from it. Work has been going ahead to correct any deficiencies.

The report did not identify which shortcomings were found at which bases. Some apparently were shared by many bases. Hill was cited in only half of the common problems. Hill already has corrected several of the difficulties and is working on the others. That is good news.

The audit blamed the Air Force for not providing adequate guidance to environmental personnel and for not having enough such experts. The audit said the violations were a potential threat to health and could subject the Air Force to fines, lawsuits, expensive cleanup operations - and adverse publicity.

It was the last item that may have caused the Air Force to refrain from any public release of the audit results - until they were dug out by Lee Davidson, Deseret News Washington Bureau chief.

There is a public relations truth that the military apparently has not yet learned. It goes like this: Sooner or later, the bad stuff will be found out and will look even worse if it has been hidden. It is better to be open and honest in the first place - the damage is always less.