Activists fear effort to keep chemical info offline

Thursday, July 29, 1999

The House Commerce Committee has put its stamp of approval on a proposal to keep “worst-case scenarios” about potential chemical accidents from being posted online, a decision that worries environmental and freedom-of-information activists.

“More than 85 million people live in close proximity to at least one of the 66,000 chemical plants,” said John Stanton, vice president of clean air programs for the National Environmental Trust. “Quite honestly, they should know what is happening in the plants in their neighborhood.”

But Rep. Tom Bliley, the Virginia Republican who led the effort to keep the reports off the Internet, said the information remains open to the public. The data simply won't be available online.

“I've always thought we could protect our national security while giving communities access to this information,” said Bliley, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, in a written statement. “This measure strikes the right balance and fixes the problem that would have placed this information into the hands of terrorists.”

The House passed the Chemical Safety Information and Site Security Act on July 21 as an amendment to the Fuels Regulatory Relief Act, which has already passed the Senate. The amended bill returns to the Senate, where it's expected to pass.

Spurred by a chemical plant accident in Bhopal, India, that killed more than 2,000 people and a toxic gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in West Virginia, Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 to require chemical manufacturing companies to develop risk-management plans. The Environmental Protection Agency considered posting the plans, which were due on June 21, on the Internet.

But the agency dropped the idea after the FBI, the CIA and the Chemical Manufacturers Association expressed concern that such information could be used to plan terrorist attacks.

Stanton described the terrorist claim as “a red-herring argument that hadn't gained any legitimacy until now. And now, information provided to the local community about threats posed to the community somehow can be bad because it would be a road map to terrorism.”

Paul McMasters, who testified before the committee last May on behalf of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said the proposal “turns on its head” the original intent of the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act.

Congress inserted the right-to-know clauses to enable ordinary citizens and local officials to make plant-by-plant comparisons to see which ones are up-to-date, said McMasters, who is First Amendment ombudsman at The Freedom Forum.

“Anyone can see what a benefit this would be to citizens and public officials and what a hindrance it might be to local plant managers,” McMasters said.

“What needs to be addressed here is the proven danger, not the speculative danger,” he said. “The only reason I can think for this proposal is that members of Congress … have either bought into scare tactics by the administration or pressure tactics by the chemical industry.”

Bliley said he supports efforts to make sure communities have access to the information about potential risks at chemical plants.

“But we must also ensure that the way this information is provided does not end up harming the very people that Congress intended to protect,” Bliley said. “While no plan is foolproof, we certainly shouldn't do anything to make it easier for those who want to harm our nation and our neighbors.”

Merely keeping such information offline won't keep it out of the hands of those who might use it illegally, some said.

“Anyone who wishes to use this information for terrorist reasons wouldn't be stopped by this law,” McMasters said. “Who will be stopped are citizens and local public officials.”