EPA offers rules to keep chemical-spill data offline

Monday, May 8, 2000

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice have presented rules restricting the online posting of information about risks posed by the nation’s chemical plants, citing concerns that terrorists might use such records.

These rules would implement 1999′s Chemical Safety Information and Site Security Act, which forbids government officials from posting the reports online.

A public hearing on the proposed rules is scheduled for today, but federal officials are accepting public comment through June 8.

Open-government advocates say the rules will not only keep important data about the potential of chemical accidents off the Internet but may force much of it out of the public eye entirely.

Ari Schwartz, a research analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, says the rules allow for “reading rooms” in all 50 states but let officials to limit the viewing of records, forbid photocopying and require visitors to identify themselves.

“More than 250 people die each year from chemical accidents, and no one in this country has ever died from terrorist attacks on chemical plants,” said Schwartz in a telephone interview. “I think just looking at the straight numbers, the public has a large interest in knowing what kind of chemical accidents could occur [near] their homes.”

Congress amended its Clean Air Act in 1990 to require chemical manufacturers to draft risk-management plans, responding to a chemical plant accident in Bhopal, India, that killed more than 2,000 people in 1984 and a toxic gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in West Virginia.

More than 15,000 chemical plants across the nation submitted the reports to the EPA by last summer.

EPA officials had considered posting the plans on the Internet but dropped the idea after the FBI, the CIA and the Chemical Manufacturers Association said such information could be used by terrorists.

In August 1999, barely a month after the risk-management plans deadline, President Clinton signed the chemical-safety law. It required the EPA and the Justice Department to draft joint rules to regulate the release of the reports.

The proposed rules, which were released last month, would allow some of the risk-management information to be posted on the Internet. But officials said they found that posting information about the names and amounts of chemicals involved, areas affected and extent of potential damage would “provide ‘one-stop’ shopping for refined targeting information.”

The online reports, officials said, “would allow someone to compare the relative damage that could be caused by chemical releases from different sites and choose the best target from which to attempt to cause a release, they would be of the greatest value to terrorists and hence would present the greatest risk.”

But federal officials acknowledge that such information would also benefit the public and have proposed to make the reports available nationwide in reading rooms.

Open-government advocates criticize the reading-room proposal, saying visitors would not be allowed to photocopy the reports and could be limited to reading only local records or no more than 10 records each month.

Rick Blum, an analyst for OMB Watch, noted in a preliminary analysis that the proposed rules don’t protect the anonymity of reading-room visitors. Reading rooms would keep daily sign-in sheets to record the names of every individual requesting risk-management reports, the number of reports the person requested and the names of the chemical plants.

Blum further wrote that the rules are vague in terms of defining reading rooms and where they might be located.

Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said the EPA’s effort to restrict access to information follows a disturbing trend regarding the Internet.

“I think the Internet has been such a wonderful tool for democracy to help the public understand what is happening in government,” Daugherty said in a telephone interview. “But it’s causing the same kind of paranoia the printing press did when it came into being.”

Phillip Taylor, a freelance contributor, works for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va.