Open-government advocates post chemical disaster information online

Monday, September 13, 1999

Frustrated by government efforts to restrict the posting of chemical information on the Internet, open-government advocates recently began offering their own Web site offering details on the risks of chemical accidents.

Although industry reports on worst-case scenarios involving potential accidents is available to the public, groups such as OMB Watch contend such information should be readily available online.

“The public can get access to much of the worst-case information by digging through industry-written summaries,” said Rick Blum, an analyst for OMB Watch. “But the people cannot get to the data itself in a form that allows them to analyze it and determine whether industry is telling the truth or just glossing over the real risks.”

Recently, OMB Watch and the Unison Institute launched a searchable database of “worst-case scenario” accident reports at the Right-to-Know Network. The site enables users to search risk-management plans for about 14,000 chemical-manufacturing factories nationwide.

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 its Clean Air Act in 1990 to require chemical manufacturers to draft risk-management plans. The plans were due last June.

The Environmental Protection Agency considered posting the plans on the Internet but dropped the idea after the FBI, the CIA and the Chemical Manufacturers Associations said such information could be used by terrorists.

Last month, Congress approved the Chemical Safety Information and Site Security Act as an amendment to the Fuels Regulatory Relief Act. President Clinton signed the measure, which forbids government from posting the reports online, into law on Aug. 5.

But the new law doesn’t prohibit groups like OMB Watch from securing the information and posting it themselves.