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Information can be hazardous to your health--or so says the chemical industry

The chemical industry is attempting to dilute a law that guarantees the public's right to know about what could happen to communities surrounding chemical plants in the event of a serious accident.

Congress passed a community right-to-know provision as part of the Clean Air Act in 1990. The law has required an estimated 66,000 U.S. chemical facilities to compile a record of their inventories, accident histories, and worst-case scenarios. The companies were supposed to submit this information to federal authorities this year.

To comply with the right-to-know law, the EPA planned to make the information public, including putting it on the Internet. But that's when the chemical companies balked. They claim the risk of Internet terrorism is greater than the risk of chemical disaster.

In May, Representative Tom Bliley, Republican of Virginia, introduced legislation that would prohibit government employees from publishing the industry's worst-case scenarios on the Internet or in any "electronic form." The law would also bar police, firefighters, local emergency planners, and federal, state, and local officials from discussing chemical hazards with their communities. And in language that many critics say undermines the 1966 Freedom of Information Act and violates civil liberties, Bliley's bill would require librarians to track and monitor library users who request information about the dangers of chemical industry accidents.

Bliley is the chairman of the House Commerce Committee and a longtime champion of the chemical industry. According to the Federal Elections Commission web site, he received $55,000 from the chemical and allied products political action committee in 1998.

At an April computer security conference in Washington, D.C., chemical industry advocates warned that only two groups would benefit from putting the worst-case scenarios on the Internet: terrorists and environmentalists.

"On the one hand, posting this information over the Internet makes it easier for folks who want to describe the magnitude of the problem to the nation," cautioned Jamie Conrad, legal counsel for the Chemical Manufacturers Association. "The other people that it makes it easier on is criminals and terrorists who'd like to blow things up and make a big bang."

Another conference panelist darkened the dire picture. "Seventeen million people around the globe have the skills to launch a cyber-attack," said Jody Westby, Internet consultant and former policy analyst for the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank monitoring technology and its effect on public policy. "The real threat is that they'll take this information and target facilities and sit in Iran or wherever they want to be and cause a worst-case scenario through an information-technology system. I challenge any of you to look at this form, and then say you'd like to have Mr. bin Laden have it."

But the conference attendees weren't buying the industry's message. Posting worst-case scenarios on a web page doesn't provide terrorists with an entrance point to chemical facilities or their computer systems, said Simson Garfinkle, chief technology officer for Sandstorm, Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts, security-software firm. "You're just confusing people," he told chemical industry representatives on the panel. "You're trying to scare us."

"This is about companies not wanting to be embarrassed over the accident potential they create," says Timothy Gablehouse, a Denver, Colorado, lawyer and chair of the Jefferson County local emergency planning committee. "It is frankly unbelievable that Congress would attempt to restrict my speech on these topics," he testified before the House Commerce Committee in May. "It is not possible to have a meaningful conversation with community groups about how to protect themselves if we do not discuss the accident scenarios they may face."

"Community-right-to-know has greatly helped to reduce chemical hazards, to get companies to take notice of, and take responsibility for, community safety," says Paul Orum, coordinator of the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know, a nonprofit organization that tracks government and industry compliance with community right-to-know laws nationwide.

"It's time for industry to stop lobbying for secrecy," says Orum. "If chemical companies want to promote this as a security problem, then they should address it as a security problem."

"We can't find any meaningful studies to suggest that chemical facilities are at a greater risk to terrorism now than they have ever been before," says Rick Blum, public affairs liaison for OMB Watch, a public interest group focusing on access to information at the federal Office of Management and Budget.

Blum says that, so far, he and his colleagues have identified only one study that addresses the chemical industry's vulnerability to terrorism. It is Security Study: Analysis of Terrorist Risk Associated With the Public Availability of Offsite Consequence Analysis Data Under EPA's Risk Management Program Regulations. Commissioned by the EPA from the Aegis Corp. and ICF Incorporated in 1997, the report says that posting industry's worstcase scenarios over the Internet could double a facility's risk of terrorist attack. Members of the chemical industry cite this as proof that worst-case scenarios should be barred from the Internet.

That study, however, is riddled with flaws, Blum says.

"Because of the lack of historical data and the limitations on existing risk assessment methodology," says Kathy Jones, EPA's associate director for its Program Implementations and Coordination division, "the report did not provide estimates of the absolute levels of risk associated with a terrorist attack on a chemical facility." Instead, says Jones, "it focused on the relative levels of risk."

For starters, says Blum, the report fails to establish a clear baseline of threat--which might easily be "something close to zero" because there has been no terrorist attack. "Basically, if you were to ask the authors of this study if posting a baseball game over the Internet would be a threat," says Blum, "they'd have to say `yes,' because you'd be telling terrorists where to find 50,000 people gathered in one place."

The study's director has denounced many of the conclusions that lawmakers and industry are now drawing from it. "I am given to understand that the relative risk projections in the Security Study have been interpreted by some parties as a reason to question the merit of EPA's plan to make the Risk Management Plan data available on the Internet," wrote Howard Dugoff, vice president of ICF and the director of the study, in a letter to James Makris of the EPA. "I believe this interpretation is grossly inappropriate."

Three members of Congress (Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio; John Dingell, Democrat of Michigan; and Ron Klink, Democrat of Pennsylvania) have called for a federal agency to investigate the study's methods. A Government Accounting Office report on the study is due sometime this summer.

In 1997 alone, says Orum, U.S. chemical facilities reported 38,305 chemical accidents to the EPA--roughly one chemical fire, spill, or explosion every fifteen minutes, he adds. Of those reported, more than 1,000 resulted in death or injury. Each year, 250 people die in chemical accidents, he says.

Many citizens depend on right-to-know laws. "Without community right-to-know provisions, a community is going to be severely lacking in information that has a direct impact on them," says Wilma Subra, a recipient of a MacArthur genius award for her work in helping citizens in Louisiana and other states clean up their toxic waste sites. "If you live near a facility, believe me, you want to know where those threats are."

Claude Morgan is a freelance writer living in Portland, Maine.
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Title Annotation:debate on whether chemical spill scenarios should be on World Wide Web
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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