Right to know

One of the hallmarks of the US Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration has been a drive to increase public information about actual and potential pollution sources.

One of the hallmarks of the US Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration has been a drive to increase public information about actual and potential pollution sources.

But with prodding from Congress, EPA has retreated on a right-to-know issue critical to the refining and chemical industries.

The agency had planned to require plant operators to submit "worst-case" data assessing the potential off-site consequences (including deaths) from hypothetical chemical accidents. EPA wanted to make all the data available to the public on the internet.

But chemical and refining companies-and law enforcement groups-warned that posting the data on the internet would be tantamount to giving terrorists a blueprint on how to attack plants and achieve the greatest damage or most fatalities.

Last year, Congress passed legislation directing EPA to reconsider, and temporarily limited release of the worst-case data to government emergency personnel.

The rule

Now EPA and the US Department of Justice have proposed a compromise rule.

EPA said the regulation balances the national security and right-to-know concerns while making all the data available in one form or another.

It said the rule would make as much information as appropriate on-line but not some data useful to persons with criminal intent.

For instance, it would not post data on the population density near a plant or details of scenarios related to the release of dangerous chemicals or regarding the potential size of a toxic cloud.

The agency would make all of the data about potential chemical hazards available at reading rooms across the country. Each month, persons with valid identification could see data on up to 10 sites near their homes or workplaces.

EPA said that would make it very difficult for criminals "to obtain large quantities of information" needed for target selection.

Also, it said the rule would repackage some of the data, "providing additional information in easily assessable ways that would help the public better understand chemical accident risk and prevention."

Protests

Industry groups have been quiet so far about the proposed rule. They're expected to comment at a May 9 public hearing.

But Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Frank Lautenbert (D-NJ) have told EPA and Justice that the proposed rule is not balanced.

They said, "Under your proposed regulations, the public would have very limited access to important information on the hazards that chemical plants present neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.

"This restriction would have serious public health and safety implications."

Paul Orum, coordinator of the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know, Washington, DC, said the public should have access to full information without the government tracking who sees what.

"We cannot suppose that restricting right-to-know alone will somehow solve either terrorism or chemical safety problems. We may end up with the worst of two worlds-with no effective right-to-know and no real action to protect public safety."

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