EPA Balances Right-to-Know, Terrorism Fears in Post-9/11

Thanks to last year's terrorist attacks, the EPA's job has gotten a lot tougher, and possibly a lot more important.

On the one hand, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) requires chemical plants with potentially hazardous materials to share this information with the public and first responders. EPA is charged with enforcing the regulations.

"Our challenge is, how do we provide that information without giving it to the bad guys?" asked John Pritz of the Dynamic Corp. Pritz spoke during a workshop devoted to enforcement and security challenges at EPA Region III's Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Conference, held earlier this week in Baltimore.

Providing information on hazardous chemicals to first responders is one reason why EPCRA has been "incredibly successful," said Bill Finan, an EPA official from the agency's Washington headquarters who attended the workshop. As a result, fire fighters, police and emergency medical personnel are far more familiar with chemicals today than they were years ago – and this is critical for responder safety in the event of a chemical incident. The events of Sept. 11 last year underscored the vulnerability of first responders when terrorists attack.

"I used to go to first responder meetings where the mantra was, 'If you don't know, don't go,'" said Finan. "I'm terribly afraid that some people are making it sound like we're providing an incredible road map for terrorists. We're not."

Federal and state governments are struggling to make the information available through a process that uses the appropriate level of scrutiny for the requesting citizen, according to Pritz. For example, many jurisdictions are requiring that requests be submitted on a letterhead, with a signature and some form of identification.

Finan agreed that such steps are necessary. "But we ought not to back down on letting the American people know that we are surrounded by chemicals that can hurt us," he said. "Especially since by and large dangerous chemical facilities are closer to poor people."

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