Outraged activists are accusing the government of using national security fears as an excuse to restrict public access to vital chemical hazard information.
Called "off-site consequence analysis," (OCA) the information is intended to alert citizens to the dangers of toxic spills and fires that confront those who live or work near plants using hazardous chemicals. A joint EPA and Department of Justice (DOJ) proposal would govern how the public can gain access to the OCA information. At the center of the debate is how much of the OCA should be posted on the Internet.
The federal government''s efforts to prevent chemical accidents have come in the wake of the 1984 chemical release from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India that killed 13,164 according to the Indian state where the disaster occurred. EPA has determined that public disclosure of OCA information would likely lead to a "significant reduction in the number and severity of accidental chemical releases," according to the preamble of the proposed rule.
The government says it is trying to balance the right of citizens to obtain OCA with concerns that this information, if placed on the Internet, could easily be used by terrorists to blow the plants up.
All of the witnesses testifying at the May 9 Washington, D.C., hearing said the regulation would make it virtually impossible for average citizens to learn of the chemical hazards in near by facilities. Moreover, many activists argued that committed terrorists could obtain the information anyway.
Paul Orum, of the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know, went so far as to charge the government was putting political fundraising above protecting the public.
"Evidently fear mongering makes good fundraising," Orum said. "To put it bluntly, we call it riding the gravy train."
No representatives from the chemical industry spoke at the May 9 hearing.
"We have no problems with the proposal," said Jim Solyst, the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) team leader for information management and right to know, in an interview after the hearing.
The proposed rule was based on a cost-benefit analysis performed jointly by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which assessed the risk that terrorists would misuse the information, and EPA, which countered that public disclosure of chemical hazards improves public safety.
At issue is how much information to post on the Internet and how much to disseminate via public reading rooms that would be established throughout the nation once the rule is adopted.
Critics complained that the government proposal will be useless for most average citizens living in so-called "vulnerable zones," because neither the name of the toxic chemical and nor the site where it is used will be available via the Internet. Instead, citizens will have to go to specially designated reading rooms in order to obtain specific information about the hazards they face by living near a chemical plant.
Companies are also currently required to hold public meetings to present the hazard information, but many are apparently failing to comply with this requirement.
Of the 15,000 facilities required to hold such meetings by July, 9,000 have not yet done so, according to government records.
Solyst said all CMA members have complied with the rule requiring public meetings, but CMA represents mostly large chemical companies -- only 800 of the 15,000 facilities that must hold the meetings are CMA members.
Solyst said the CMA would be supporting the proposal because it addresses two major concerns: the threat of terrorism and access of local citizens to hazard information.
"We''re not in the security business, so we don''t know what threat there may be from terrorism," he said. As a result, the CMA will go along with the government''s assessment.
Solyst promised the CMA would encourage its members to work with local emergency planning committees to set up the reading rooms called for by the proposed rule.
Critics of the rule argued that by requiring people living in vulnerable zones to travel to a reading room to find out the name of the chemical and the facility using it, the proposal makes it virtually impossible for citizens to assess the risks they face.
"It''s not a practical system," said Tim Gablehouse of the Colorado Emergency Planning Committee in his testimony at the hearing.
He said that in Colorado some people are threatened by facilities in other states and jurisdictions, and traveling long distances to neighboring states to obtain this information is going to be extremely difficult under the proposed rule.
The risk of increased citizen mistrust of government is a risk that is not addressed in the proposal, according to Gablehouse.
At one point Jim Makris, the director of EPA''s CEPPO, appealed to witnesses to comment only on the proposed rule, not the cost-benefit analysis upon which it is based. But on this point Makris was largely ignored.
Several activists also charged that the proposal makes it almost impossible for communities to exert pressure on plants to operate more safely, because it will be extremely difficult to get the "best-practices" data needed to compare the safety programs of companies within an industry.
"In fact this rule goes further than any of us ever imagined," asserted Tom Natan, of the Environmental Trust. "Because it suggests that any time chemical identity and facility location information are together in accessible form, that combination poses a national security threat."
John Chelan of Unison, a Washington, D.C., public interest group, said his organization was capable of providing the government with a system which would make it impossible to obtain information off the Internet anonymously, something that would go a long way to address government security concerns. A reporter later asked why the government was not pursuing this possibility.
EPA and DOJ officials said they could not immediately answer questions raised at the hearing, but they would pursue every issue raised.
"The questions asked today are very valuable to us," said Makris, who said they would all be addressed before a final rule is issued Aug. 5.
by James Nash