Public entitled to data on chemical risks, FOI Day conference told

Wednesday, March 17, 1999

Gary Bass...
Gary Bass

ARLINGTON, Va. — Efforts to block the full
disclosure of “worst-case scenarios” involving the
use of hazardous chemicals run counter to the
ideals of an open society, information-access
advocates warned today.

If opponents “are successful and this information
is kept off the Internet,” said Gary Bass of the
group OMB Watch, “it will undermine [the principle
of] the public's right to know.”

The discussion at a National Freedom of
Information Day conference occurred as
Congressional hearings focused on the same topic:
Should worst-case accident scenarios for
approximately 66,000 hazardous-chemical plants be
exempt from Freedom of Information Act, or at
least kept off the Internet?

Under the Clean Air Act, the worst-case material
is public information and is to be submitted to
the Environmental Protection Agency by June 21.
The EPA plans to put the information on the
Internet. But many in the chemical industry don't
want the data contained in those scenarios —
called risk management plans — made public. They
say the information could be used by terrorists,
an assessment in which an FBI report concurs.

But others believe that there is an overriding
need to “make the information available so
[communities] can understand the hazards and
decide what to do,” said Bill Finan of the EPA's
Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention

Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and
Technology, said two compromises have been
suggested: putting the information on CD-ROMs or
providing the information only to local emergency
planning bodies.

Neither is acceptable, he said,
challenging the government to “either make [the
information] public or decide that it'll be

Jim Solyst of the Chemical Manufacturers
Association said his group strongly supports the
idea of preparing risk management plans but is
lobbying to keep the data off the Internet because
of the FBI's fear that it would be used by
terrorists. However, he said, the chemical
industry has an “obligation to be proactive and
reach out to communities.” Properly implemented,
he suggested, such action would preclude the need
to put risk management plans on the Internet.

OMB Watch's Bass said there are an average of 256
deaths a year related to chemical accidents. He
said some have tried to minimize that number by
saying that it is smaller than the number of
deaths that would occur if two airliners crashed.
“When [a crash] happens it attracts much media
attention,” he said, “but much less attention is
paid to 256 chemical deaths.”

Because there is not widespread media coverage, he
continued, citizens need to have risk information
available on the Internet so they can compare the
chemical plant in their community to others.

The EPA's Finan said “worst-case” scenarios rarely
occur, and that perhaps everyone would be better
served if “alternative” scenarios for chemical
accidents were made available on the Internet. But
the important thing, he said, is to get
information needed for decision-making to the
public: “Hazards are not based in information.
They are based in the chemicals.”