Inhofe Spots Terrorist Roadmap at EPA

Published June 1, 1999

“I believe EPA has lost sight of the purpose of this data,” Senator James Inhofe said at the opening of his March 16 hearing into the Environmental Protection Agency’s reckless handling of its Risk Management Program. “We need to make sure the local emergency personnel have access to the information and not provide a forum for terrorists around the world to target and blow up facilities in our neighborhoods.”

In fact, what the program does is just what Inhofe, quite reasonably, doesn’t want it to do. It will provide terrorists with a roadmap to free weapons of mass destruction, directions for their use, and suggestions for when to use them to cause the greatest damage and maximum loss of life.

Here’s how it works.

The Risk Management Program is a collection of Risk Management Plans (RMP) that industry is required to submit to EPA. The program covers 250 chemicals, ranging from highly explosive methyl ether to phosgene–as in phosgene gas.

In addition to the amount, location, and method of storage for each chemical inventoried, the RMPs must contain a “worst case scenario” providing detailed information about how the chemical might be “ignited, exploded, or otherwise released into the environment,” the type and extent of damage that would result, the number of people killed and injured, the total area that would be affected, and even the number of schools, shopping centers, and other public gathering places in the affected area. The plans must include such helpful details as the optimum wind direction for maximum casualties.

And EPA planned to put all of this on the Internet.

Last spring, Inhofe’s subcommittee asked the FBI to look into EPA’s plan. The results were a little good and a lot bad. As Inhofe put it: “I am pleased that the FBI convinced the EPA that it would be foolhardy to release the information. However, that is not the end of the problem. Anyone can request and receive the data from EPA through the FOIA process, and EPA will have to comply.”

The Senator is right.

It might be even easier than that. EPA’s allies–the National Resources Defense Council, for example, or the Environmental Defense Fund (which published EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory on the Internet)–will have little trouble getting their hands on the RMPs.

The problem, as we see it, is that the 1990 Clean Air Act was crafted with insufficient safeguards. As a result the RMPs simply wound up in the wrong hands–EPA’s.

There is absolutely no good served by giving EPA details of potential disaster. The agency has no ambulances, paramedics, hazmat teams, search-and-rescue squads, or fire trucks. It never even shows up at the scene of a disaster–except, possibly, to determine whether the event provides opportunity for expanding regulations.

The information belongs in the hands of state and local disaster planning organizations, disaster response teams, and others who can actually plan for, and minimize the affects of, any emergency situation.

“I understand that the agency is examining different technological methods to protect the information,” Inhofe observed, “but I have serious doubts that they have enough time to protect the information before the June 21 deadline [for publishing the information].” Nor is there time to revise the Clean Air Act to remove Risk Management information from EPA hands and place it solely in the hands of local authorities.

However, there is a stop-gap measure Congress can and should take. It can enact emergency legislation either to impound the information for national security reasons or extend the deadline for it to go into the public domain. It is not clear whether such legislation would pass a constitutional test–it would certainly be challenged on that basis. But it might buy time to properly sort out this dangerous mess.