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Public entitled to data on chemical risks, FOI Day conference told

By Don Ross
Gary Bass...
Gary Bass
ARLINGTON, Va. — Efforts to block the full disclosure of "worst-case scenarios" involving the use of hazardous chemicals run counter to the ideals of an open society, information-access advocates warned today.

If opponents "are successful and this information is kept off the Internet," said Gary Bass of the group OMB Watch, "it will undermine [the principle of] the public's right to know."

The discussion at a National Freedom of Information Day conference occurred as Congressional hearings focused on the same topic: Should worst-case accident scenarios for approximately 66,000 hazardous-chemical plants be exempt from Freedom of Information Act, or at least kept off the Internet?

Under the Clean Air Act, the worst-case material is public information and is to be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency by June 21. The EPA plans to put the information on the Internet. But many in the chemical industry don't want the data contained in those scenarios — called risk management plans — made public. They say the information could be used by terrorists, an assessment in which an FBI report concurs.

But others believe that there is an overriding need to "make the information available so [communities] can understand the hazards and decide what to do," said Bill Finan of the EPA's Chemical Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Office.

Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said two compromises have been suggested: putting the information on CD-ROMs or providing the information only to local emergency planning bodies.

Neither is acceptable, he said, challenging the government to "either make [the information] public or decide that it'll be classified."

Jim Solyst of the Chemical Manufacturers Association said his group strongly supports the idea of preparing risk management plans but is lobbying to keep the data off the Internet because of the FBI's fear that it would be used by terrorists. However, he said, the chemical industry has an "obligation to be proactive and reach out to communities." Properly implemented, he suggested, such action would preclude the need to put risk management plans on the Internet.

OMB Watch's Bass said there are an average of 256 deaths a year related to chemical accidents. He said some have tried to minimize that number by saying that it is smaller than the number of deaths that would occur if two airliners crashed. "When [a crash] happens it attracts much media attention," he said, "but much less attention is paid to 256 chemical deaths."

Because there is not widespread media coverage, he continued, citizens need to have risk information available on the Internet so they can compare the chemical plant in their community to others.

The EPA's Finan said "worst-case" scenarios rarely occur, and that perhaps everyone would be better served if "alternative" scenarios for chemical accidents were made available on the Internet. But the important thing, he said, is to get information needed for decision-making to the public: "Hazards are not based in information. They are based in the chemicals."

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