Public’s right to know about possible chemical accidents would be curtailed under rule.FOI Alert Volume 5 Issue 9 (1999-2000)
Federal government officials, saying they are worried about worst-case chemical plant accident scenarios falling into the hands of terrorists, have issued a proposed rule that will severely restrict access to information about the scenarios and track those who view the information.
The proposed rule, released April 27 by the Environmental Protection Agency and United States Department of Justice, restricts the public's right to know about chemical accidents in their communities, regions and around the country in several ways, according to a preliminary analysis released by the watchdog group, OMB Watch.
The information will be released in ways to "minimize the likelihood of accidental releases, the risk of national security associated with posting the information on the Internet, and the likelihood of harm to public health and welfare," the proposed rule reads.
Ironically, under the proposed rules journalists and other researchers may not be able to effectively explain to people the possible dangers posed by chemical manufacturers and similar facilities in their communities. In addition, citizens won’t be able to access much of the most key information via the Internet. The proposed rules also raise issues about the government monitoring the activities of journalists reviewing such records.
Chemical fires and spills kill some 250 Americans a year, according to the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know. The group also points out that many facilities’ worst-case scenarios are already on the Internet (at www.rtk.net).
In March, several members of the Society of Professional Journalists met with David Savolaine, an aide to Congressman Sherrod Brown, about the proposed restrictions.
The Working Group had proposed using the Freedom of Information Act to gather the information and post it in a useable form on the Internet. "Keeping information off the Internet will not protect communities," said Paul Orum, with the Working Group.
Many of the chemical inventories now required to be disclosed by industries are kept in local government offices including health departments. But few members of the public or press know where to find these hard-copy documents, leaving them out of reach of people who need accurate information about the hazards that exist in their backyards.
The proposed rule follows efforts by Congress to prevent or lessen the effects of chemical accidents, particularly since the 1984 chemical release in Bhopal, India. Since that time, the EPA has required disclosure by facilities that have "threshold" levels of chemicals and required them to assess the potential consequences of the worst-case accident.
According to OMB Watch, the access restrictions on the worst-case scenario information include:
** Limiting information available on the Internet. The following kinds of information would not be placed on the Internet:
Identity of the chemical involved in the worst-case or alternative case scenario,
Release rate of the chemical,
Duration of release,
Distance to endpoint (i.e., vulnerability zone),
Population within the vulnerability zone,
Public receptors (e.g., churches, schools, shopping centers),
Environmental receptors (e.g., national parks), and
Graphics such as maps used to illustrate a scenario.
** Requiring, citizens, journalists and researchers to view the information in "reading rooms," but not allowing copying. Local reading rooms could only include information for chemical plants in the geographic area near the reading room. The proposed rule would allow, but not require, fire departments, Local Emergency Planning Committees and State Emergency Response Commissions to establish local reading rooms.
** Other information would have to be obtained in one of 50 state reading rooms where information about users of the information would be recorded and tracked. Individuals would be able to view no more than ten records each month and could take notes but could not make copies of the so-called offsite consequence analyses.
** Creating an online tool that would allow users to enter a street address anywhere in the United States and find out whether that address may be affected by a worst-case chemical accident. There are several limitations including the fact that the data is not precise enough to indicate with certainty whether a particular address would or would not be affected by a chemical accident at a nearby facility.
A public hearing on the proposed rules is scheduled for Tuesday, May 9 in Washington, D.C., at the EPA Auditorium at Waterside Mall, 401 M Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20460. Those who want to testify at the hearing should call John Ferris, (202) 260-4043 or Vanessa Rodriguez, (202) 260-7913. Comments should be prepared in triplicate.
Public comments on the proposed rule are due on Thursday, June 8, 2000, and can be mailed to: Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation, Docket and Information Center, Ariel Rios Building, M6102, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 20460, Attn: Docket No. A-2000-20. Comments may be submitted on a disk in WordPerfect or Word formats.
The text of the proposed rule, along with the EPA and Justice Department assessments that formed the basis of this rule (totaling over 200 pages) can be found at: http://www.epa.gov/ceppo/whatnew.html
OMB Watch preliminary analysis of the proposed rule can be found at:
Rick Blum, OMB Watch, 202-234-8494.
Brenda Sue Thornton, trial attorney, criminal division, terrorism and violent crimes section, U.S. Department of Justice, 202-616-5210.
John Ferris, chemical engineer, Environmental Protection Agency, 202-260-4043.
Vanessa Rodrigues, chemical engineer, Environmental Protection Agency, 202-260-7913.
About the author: Joel Campbell is SPJ’s Utah Project Sunshine Chair and associate editor in New Media at the (Salt Lake City) Deseret News. Contact Campbell at (801) 237-2190.