Bill to keep ‘worst-case’ chemical-spill info off Net attacked in hearing

Thursday, May 27, 1999

WASHINGTON — A proposal to keep “worst-case scenarios” about potential chemical accidents from being posted online was characterized at a
congressional hearing yesterday as “ill-conceived and misdirected.”

“This legislation gives a broad grant of discretion to the administrator of EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency) to withhold chemical risk data from state and local agencies responsible for environmental emergency response,” said Leon G. Billings, a member of the Maryland state legislature.

“It completely precludes the right of a community to know the location and risk posed by specific manufacturing facilities,” Billings said.

The bill, H.R. 1790, sponsored by Virginia Republican Thomas Bliley, was drafted by the Clinton administration. It proposes limiting disclosure of casualty and other risk estimates from potential chemical accidents to prevent terrorists from obtaining information that could be used to plan an attack. Such estimates would not be allowed on the Internet.

“The public would be better served if Congress placed a higher priority on arming citizens with accurate information than denying them the information they need to make their communities safer,” said Paul McMasters, testifying on behalf of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Some of the amendment’s provisions “contradict the traditions and
principles of open government as well as the requirements of current
law,” added McMasters, who is First Amendment Ombudsman at The Freedom Forum.

“It would deny the 40 million American citizens who live in the
shadow of … 60,000 chemical plants the information they need to act
and to demand action to protect their loved ones and their
communities,” he said.

None of the six witnesses at the hearing of the House Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on health and environment testified in favor of the bill, which was urged by the Chemical Manufacturers Association.

The EPA originally considered posting plant-by-plant “worst case” estimates on the Internet. But the idea was dropped last fall after expressions of concern by the FBI, the CIA, the National Fire Chiefs Association and lawmakers.

Jason Grumet, executive director of an association of state air-pollution control agencies in the northeastern United States, said Congress must balance anti-terrorist concerns against the right to information but that the proposed amendment “is overly broad in its intrusion against state right to know laws.”

“The national security interests … surely present a compelling
government interest,” Grumet said. “However, the Northeast states are far less certain that this bill is effectively and narrowly tailored to achieve these goals.”

He questioned whether “threatening civil servants and librarians with financial ruin and incarceration is an effective … means of increasing site security.”

Kathy M. Kinsey, assistant attorney general of Maryland, said the bill was drawn without consulting affected state officials, even though it would preempt state law.

While the amendment would require the EPA administrator to issue
“guidance” for how it is to be implemented, she said, “this guidance would not be judicially reviewable, and therefore not subject to the ordinary public processes normally accorded development of regulation.”

Thomas Natan, the research director of the National Environmental Trust, said the measure provided a template to restrict public access to any data collected by EPA.

“What’s to prevent a future restriction of … data for the 10 most-flammable substances? Or the 10 that are judged to be most acutely toxic?” Natan asked.

McMasters said the proposed database would contain only inventories of 140 chemicals, accident histories, and how accidental chemical releases would affect populations.

“As a blueprint for sabotage, the database would not be very helpful,” McMasters said. But, he added, “as a guide for citizens interested in making sure that chemical plants in their neighborhoods were hardened against
accidental or intentional releases, such information would be

Harry F. Rosenthal is a retired Associated Press reporter.