The House has joined the Senate in approving legislation that attempts to balance national security with the public's "right to know" if accidents at chemical plants endanger people who live and work in surrounding communities.
Labor and environmental groups opposed the measure and called for the full disclosure of chemical hazards, while the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) is pleased with the bill.
House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley, R-Va., made minor changes to Senate Bill 880 and worked out a compromise with committee Democrats that was approved by the full House on July 22 under unanimous consent.
In June, EPA received chemical risk management plans (RMP) from thousands of facilities that describe how people would be affected by "worst case" chemical disasters. Under current law, anyone can use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain this information and post it on the Internet. The FBI, alerted to the situation, grew concerned that terrorists might use the sensitive information to target vulnerable plants.
The bill approved by the House calls for a one-year moratorium on disclosure of worst-case scenarios. During that time, the chemical facilities must conduct a public outreach meeting to discuss their RMP.
In addition, the attorney general would use the year to study the threat of criminal activity against chemical facilities. After weighing the risks and benefits, the president would be required to promulgate regulations on the disclosure of worst-case scenarios.
In the meantime, local law enforcement and emergency service personnel will have access to the information, and they may share it with other organizations responsible for preventing or responding to a chemical release.
The bill protects national security, Bliley said, but communities would get access to worst-case chemical disaster information. "This measure strikes the right balance and fixes the problem that would have placed this information into the hands of terrorists," he said.
CMA also expressed its satisfaction with the proposed legislation. "We're quite happy with the bill and with the way the two houses have worked together," said Jim Solyst, a team leader. "We think it is really good government here."
Unions and environmental groups argued that limiting the public's "right to know" about chemical hazards will do nothing to combat terrorism or promote safety.
"Our position has always been that full access to information is the only thing that would reduce hazards and keep our workers and the communities they work in safe," said Paula Little of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy International Union (PACE). PACE joined 20 other unions and environmental groups in signing a letter to Congress last May opposing limits on the public's right to know about chemical hazards.
Because the bill has bipartisan support in Congress, it appears likely to become law. The Senate is expected to act quickly to iron out the minor differences between its original bill and the one passed by the House.