Terrorist threat vs. public disclosure

EPA must release chemical-disaster scenarios, but critics say putting data on the Internet may end up helping saboteurs.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Striking a balance between the public's "right to know" and the protection of national security is proving to be a formidable mission for the United States Enivronmental Protection Agency.

Congress has mandated that the EPA give citizens information about "worst-case scenarios" in the event of accidents or disasters at 66,000 industrial sites where dangerous chemicals are stored.

The agency had planned to distribute that information on the Internet, but recently began a search for alternatives after the US intelligence community raised objections. The problem, they said, is that the Internet's easy and fast access for the public also could mean that, with a few clicks of a mouse, a terrorist could scan scenarios to pinpoint the "best" targets.

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"The Internet would have been a good way [to make the data public], but it also would have posed some risks. It's a balancing act," says Kathy Jones, associate director for the EPA's Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Office (CEPPO), which oversees the Risk Management Plan.

The discussion of how to strike that balance, and how to reconcile existing laws and regulations that appear to contradict each other, involves not only government groups such as the EPA, Congress, and the FBI, but environmental groups and First Amendment defenders as well.

"The problem with an online database is that a terrorist could, from anywhere in the world, identify a target via computer," says a federal intelligence official who spoke confidentially.

Chemical vs. terrorist threats

Although the EPA's deference to security advisers is being applauded by the chemical-manufacturing industry, which originally raised security concerns, environmental groups say the risks to the public from industrial accidents outweigh any increased risks of terrorism.

"This isn't the kind of information that gives a terrorist the ability to make an accident happen," says Lois Epstein, of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington. Holding the chemical industry accountable to the public, she adds, is an effective tool for improving safety.

Under the Clean Air Act of 1990, industrial facilities - from manufacturing plants to petroleum refineries - have until June 1999 to provide the EPA with data on the type and amount of chemicals stored at each site, estimates of human casualties from accidents, and associated emergency-response plans.

But while the law requires the EPA to make the data available to the public, it does not specify a method. The agency is considering alternatives to online publication, ranging from closed-system access at EPA reading rooms to local databases at libraries. But Ms. Jones acknowledges these can't provide the widespread access (and the ease of researching at home) the Internet offers.

But even if the EPA does not post the information online all in one place, it may be impossible for it to avoid electronic transmission, because the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires that online requests be responded to via the Internet.

Another dilemma: Some environmental groups, as well as state governments, have indicated they will place the material on their own Internet sites if the EPA doesn't. "It's perfectly lawful," says Timothy Gablehouse, a Denver environmental lawyer on the EPA's Risk Management Plan advisory panel. "How can you stop it? I think you have First Amendment issues here."

Congressman's concerns

Rep. Thomas Bliley (R) of Virginia, House Commerce Committee chairman, has joined the opposition to creating an electronic database. "I find it appalling that some environmental groups are considering disseminating this sensitive information on the Internet without any apparent regard to the threat it poses," he wrote in October to EPA Administrator Carol Browner.

Representative Bliley went on to request from Ms. Browner a list of all groups that have indicated to the EPA that they intend to disseminate this data on their own Internet sites.

"The chairman is not against the public's right to know," says Bliley's press secretary Eric Wohlschlegel. "But by putting this on the Internet, there's no way to account for who's accessing this information. This is a more serious concern than people even realize at this stage."

But others view the national-security argument as a smokescreen to keep the public in the dark about the risks from industrial hazards.

Also, much of the information in question is already available online in some form, says Mr. Gablehouse, a longtime member of Colorado's Emergency Planning Commission. The EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, for example, which has been available to the public since 1988, lists hazardous chemicals present at facilities nationwide, and is currently online.

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