New rules proposed for making Worst-Case Scenario Data available on Internet

Published August 1, 2000

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice have proposed new rules for posting chemical information on the Internet, after consulting with the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency.

Last year, Environment & Climate News was instrumental in persuading Congress to delay for one year EPA’s plan to post on the Internet sensitive information about hazardous chemical storage. Pursuant to Congress’ actions last year, EPA and the Justice Department have now proposed new guidelines for the online availability of information regarding chemicals and the threat they pose to the communities in which they are located.

After 45 days of public comment, the rules should be finalized in August.

The proposed new rules have many critics. Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, warned, “While terrorists may not be able to have easy, anonymous access to the information, they will still have access.”

Debbie Sease of the Sierra Club countered, “The real problem isn’t Internet access. The real problem is that dangerous facilities threaten families with toxic disasters. If these facilities are a terrorist threat, the answer isn’t to keep the public in the dark–the answer is to reduce the amount of hazardous chemicals and improve site security.”

Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) and Max Baucus (D-Montana), members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, have sent a letter to EPA Administrator Carol Browner and Attorney General Janet Reno expressing “serious concern” about the limited public access to this information. The letter continues, “In creating these restrictions, the proposed regulations ignore provisions we specifically wrote into the [law] to balance the risk reduction benefits of public disclosure against the incremental risk of terrorism due to Internet access to this information.”

Under the proposed new rules, EPA’s Web site would not divulge the names of chemicals that might be released in a worst-case accident, the duration of such a release, the distance a cloud of chemical residue could travel, and the population near chemical plants. That data would be available at local libraries in paper form only and, theoretically, not available for copying. Libraries would be required to demand proper identification before giving access to the data. Local emergency planning committees and police and fire departments also would have access to the information.

The Chemical Manufacturers Association is “very supportive” of the proposal. A spokesman said the group had agreed to accept the recommendations of national security experts.