When it comes to chemical threats, ignorance just isn’t bliss

Monday, February 15, 1999

Forty million men, women and children in the United States live in the
shadow of 66,000 plants harboring chemicals that could kill or maim
indiscriminately if they escaped into the air we breathe.

The specter of an accidental or intentional release of these chemicals has
hung over us like a poisonous cloud ever since 1984, when a chemical plant
accident in Bhopal, India, killed more than 2,000 people, and a later
accident in West Virginia sent 100 people to the hospital.

Spurred by public anxiety about those incidents and the possibility of
others, Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 to require the thousands
of companies manufacturing, storing or transporting hazardous chemicals to
develop risk-management plans to be disclosed to the public.

The idea behind making people more aware was to enlist them as partners in
making our communities more secure. The database of risk management plans
would help answer such questions as —

  • How many and what kinds of hazards are stored at chemical plants?
  • How many accidental releases have there been?
  • What are the security and safety precautions and how often are they
    reviewed and monitored?
  • How does what’s reported comport with reality?

Deadline for release of those risk-management plans was set for June 21 of
this year. The Environmental Protection Agency decided that the Internet
would be the most effective and democratic way to distribute this
information, but it has been forced to abandon that strategy.

As the deadline for disclosure approached and the memory of those chemical
disasters dimmed, a few members of Congress, the FBI, the CIA, the Defense
and State departments, and, of course, the chemical industry invoked a
point-and-click nightmare: Unknown terrorists surfing the Internet might use
information on the Internet to create a chemical catastrophe.

Last week, during a little-noted joint hearing of two House Commerce
Committee subcommittees, Committee Chairman Tom Bliley, R-Va., chastised EPA
officials for being too eager to share sensitive information with the public
and made it clear there are times when information should be dreaded as much
as toxic fumes wafting through an American neighborhood.

Here is what the risk-management database would contain: inventories of 140
different chemicals, accident histories, where and
how accidental chemical releases could occur, and the populations that would
be affected.

Here is what the database would not contain: security information,
storage-tank locations, classified information, or clues as to how a release
could be triggered. In other words, as a blueprint for sabotage, the
database would be rather cumbersome.

Yet the information about the impact on communities if an unlikely set of
circumstances were to occur, known as worst-case scenarios, has government
officials and the national security community deeply troubled. As Rep.
Bliley put it: “Congress and the American people surely never imagined that
the EPA would ever propose posting all of this information — including
human injury estimates of a worst-case chemical release — in a
worldwide electronic database, easily searchable from Boston to Baghdad,
from Los Angeles to Libya.”

Such information already is available, of course, to the would-be terrorist
who cares to check a telephone book, drive by a plant, attend chemical
industry trade shows, check out chemical manufacturing directories in
libraries, or even access congressional testimony posted on the Internet.

It seems safe to assume that a terrorist organization would be much more
likely to select a chemical plant target based on political impact or inside
information about vulnerabilities than as a result of its appearance in an
Internet database. And it seems prudent to keep in mind that, during the
latest 10-year period to be reported, there were more than a million
releases of chemicals because of accidents and not a single incident of
sabotage, let alone sabotage using the Internet.

Nevertheless, the FBI and others are advocating a “closed system” that would
allow release of worst-case scenario information only to state and local
government officials in a difficult-to-access format on a
community-by-community basis.

That approach does not put data beyond the reach of those potential
saboteurs probing for weaknesses in the system. It does put it out of the
reach of ordinary citizens who would be more likely to press for a more
secure system (“hardened targets,” in the language of counterterrorism) if
they were fully aware of the potential dangers.

More important, that approach deprives citizens and taxpayers of the

  • A national database that gives a true picture of the size and
    nature of the problems we face.
  • A way for civic action groups, journalists and researchers to compare
    and analyze safety and security measures from community to community.
  • A comprehensive database to replace bits and pieces of sometimes
    outdated, other times inaccurate information currently available.
  • A way for people and firms moving to new communities to assess the
  • An instrument for evaluating the performance of elected officials and
    government agencies in protecting the public.

The public needs to know how well or whether local plants are employing new
technologies and techniques that use fewer chemicals, operate at safer
pressures and temperatures, reduce storage amount and time and cut down on
the frequency and distance of transportation. Citizens need to know what
the companies in their midst are doing about secondary containment,
automatic shutoffs, alarms, fences, barriers, buffer zones, security forces,
and the off-site impact of a chemical release.

It’s not at all surprising that government officials would try to convince
the public — and failing that, to scare it into believing — that
the less we know the safer we are.

Neither is it surprising that nothing focuses the minds of public officials
and corporate executives like public disclosure of the hazards they are
supposed to be managing. The EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, for example, was
opposed at the time for many of the same reasons that the worst-case
scenario information is opposed now. Yet the TRI has led to significant
reductions of chemical dangers and releases, as well as improved safety and
security in communities across the nation.

Still, some members of Congress and national security agencies persist in
saying that information on the Internet is more of a problem than poisonous
chemicals in vulnerable plants.

Which raises important questions:

If there is a danger of terrorist activity or targeting, wouldn’t it be
better if the entire community knew and was on the lookout?

Wouldn’t the availability of accurate, up-to-date risk-management plans
dissuade rather than attract would-be terrorists?

Wouldn’t the more sensible approach be to reduce the threat than to
reduce the flow of information?

And finally: Is keeping information off the Internet the answer —
or just a way of evading painful questions?

Paul McMasters can be contacted at pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.