Electric utilities in the Washington metropolitan area keep files on their critics, listing where they meet and what is said and done - in public. Any implication that there is more in the files than that, the companies say, is wrong.
"We attend their meetings but not undercover," said Jim Buck, who is with the Virginia Electric and Power Co. in Richmond, summing up the general attitude. "We have informational files on the people and what they say, but we don't go into their background. We'd be derelict in our duty to the public if we didn't keep some sort of track."
Officials at Vepco, Potomac Electric Power Co. and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. are unanimous in resenting what they see as an attempt to make the mere existence of files appear sinister. They say their critics also keep files and attend company meetings, sometimes incognito, and there is no public outcry about that.
Opponents of nuclear power plant construction and others critical of utilities' impact on the environment concede there is no proof as yet that any illegally or covertly obtained information is included in local utility files. Still they are concerned.
"We were astonished to learn that even back in 1973, (Vepco) would send someone to monitor a little movie we were showing in a high school auditorium." said June Allen, president of the North Anna Environmental Coalition. "We hardly amounted to anything then."
Vepco has been plagued since 1971 with bomb threats at its nuclear plant construction site on the North Anna River. Confidential documents of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, (NRC), obtained by the Committee for Science in the Public Interest under a Freedom of Information Act request, list 29 bomb threats there between 1971 and 1976.
Utilities are reluctant to talk about bomb threats, reasoning that publicity creates more of them. In 1975, Vepco asked the Virginia state legislature to give the utility police powers of arrest as well as to allow it to have access to citizen criminal records. They wanted these new powers, they said, to comply with federal security regulations regarding new employees at nuclear installations.
The request was turned down. Vepco has no plans to reintroduce the bill, spokesman Buck said, even though NRC documents show that 18 of the 29 North Anna bomb threats occured last year. This was far more than occured at any other plant in the country. "We don't need it," Buck said. "We now have access to the records of the central (police) criminal record exchange."
He added that the exchange was used only for background checks on prospective employees and not on Vepco's critics.
A Baltimore Gas spokesman said the firm has a three-man investigative team within its security department to investigate thefts and set up security procedures. The team does not investigate company critics nor attend their meetings, the spokesman said.
Baltimore Gas "years ago" had access to police files on prospective employees, the spokesman said, but does so no longer. Neither does the company receive police information on activist groups, he said.
The work of compiling the utility files is generally handled by the public relations departments, the companies said. Hal Stroube, who was Pepco's public affairs officer from 1972 to 1976 and is now a private consultant, said his staff "covered meetings like reporters." Written reports of the proceedings went to the Atomic Industrial Forum and Edison Electric Institute, both national trade associations, and were disseminated in those organizations' bulletins, he said.
"I watched letters to the editor, went to meetings got on mailing lists of these groups and so on, trying to understand what the concerns were that these antinuclear people had, so we could answer them," Stroube said. "Damn few of those meetings got any publicity in the papers, so we would go ourselves."
It would be irresponsible not to keep track of antinuclear protest groups, the officials said.
"I'd have to be pretty dumb not to want to know who was involved in that demonstration at Seabrook (N.H., where 1,400 protesters were arrested last May), and what they did and whether they were violent or nonviolent or what, so that when our turn came I'd have some idea how to handle it," Stroube said.
To call that counterintelligence or Watergate-style surveillance, he went on, is "ridiculous, unfounded. It does the utilities a real disservice."
The antinuclear groups are unconvinced. "We know that Vepco has fired people who exposed construction problems at the nuclear plants," said June Allen of the North Anna Environmental Coalition. "I'm not worried really about the files themselves. It's when it's more than that . . ."