Proposed Rule Blocks Public Right To
Know about Chemical Accident Scenarios
Fair Use Statement
Proposed Rule Blocks Public Right To Know about
Chemical Accident Scenarios, Tracks Individuals Viewing
An OMB Watch Preliminary Analysis
April 27, 2000
A rule proposed jointly by the Environmental Protection
Agency and Department of Justice today would block the
public's right to know about potential chemical accident
worst case scenarios in communities across the United
A public hearing is scheduled for May 9 in Washington, DC
and public comments on the proposed rule are due on June
8, 2000. The text of the proposed rule, along with the EPA
and Justice Department assessments that formed the
basis of this rule (totaling over 200 pages) can be found at:
Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990
requires that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
collect risk management plans (RMP) from plants that
manufacture, process or otherwise use specific hazardous
chemicals. Included in these plans are offsite consequence
analyses (OCA), which indicate how the surrounding
community might be affected in a potential worst case
chemical accident scenario and alternative case scenario.
Summary of the Proposed Rule
The proposed rule would severely constrain public access
to this information. The proposed rule restricts the public's
right to know about chemical accidents in their
communities, regions and around the country in several
1. Limited Internet Access to Selected OCA Information.
The proposal makes certain OCA information available on
the Internet while withholding data elements most likely to
spur hazard reduction efforts. The information of greatest
interest to the public would not be available. The withheld
information includes the following:
- Identity of the chemical involved in the worst-case or
alternative case scenario,
- Release rate of the chemical,
- Duration of release,
- Distance to endpoint (i.e., vulnerability zone),
- Population within the vulnerability zone,
- Public receptors (e.g., churches, schools, shopping
- Environmental receptors (e.g., national parks), and
- Graphics such as maps used to illustrate a scenario.
2. Reading Room "Read Only" Access to Paper Copies.
The public would be allowed to view -- but not photocopy --
OCA information in reading rooms of two types: local and
a. Local reading rooms.
The proposed rule would allow, but not require, fire
departments, Local Emergency Planning Committees
(LEPCs), and State Emergency Response Commissions to
establish local reading rooms. Local reading rooms would
be allowed to provide public viewing of OCA information for
only facilities with a vulnerability zone that extends into the
LEPC's jurisdiction. There is no guarantee that the public
can access these public records anonymously, nor are
there are there requirements that local reading rooms
provide access to a minimum number of records. Thus,
local reading rooms can limit the number of OCA records
viewed by any one person beyond the "local records only"
restriction and impose any other controls that reading room
providers deem appropriate.
b. Federal reading rooms.
To gain access to the offsite consequence analysis for any
facility in the U.S. that had not already publicly released the
information, a member of the public would have to travel to
one of fifty (50) federal "reading rooms" and show
government-issued identification (e.g., a driver's license).
Individuals would be able to view no more than ten records
each month and could take notes but could not make
copies of the OCA. According to the proposal, reading
rooms would keep daily sign-in sheets recording the names
of each individual requesting OCA information, how many
facilities' OCA information the individual had received to
read, and the names of the facilities.
The proposal is very vague on what constitutes a federal
reading room and where they would be located. A federal
reading room could be an EPA regional office or a room in a
federal office building. Libraries are unlikely to be
designated federal reading rooms because they are
ill-equipped and generally disinclined to implement the
proposed identification and access controls. Further, the
American Library Association passed a resolution last year
opposing controls on public access to OCA information and
generally do not track or monitor what information the public
accesses in public libraries.
It is unclear how the public would identify the location of the
nearest federal or local reading room. Also unclear is
whether members of the public would have to know a facility
name to view OCA information or whether individuals could
simply request OCA information for a specific area or view
several records for a specific type of facility. Finally, the
proposed rule does not guarantee citizens anonymous
access to OCA information locally through the LEPC.
The proposed rule also does not discuss how the public
would be able to obtain already-available OCA information
for facilities that voluntarily release their complete RMP
information, including OCA information, to the public.
Current law allows unfettered public access to any OCA
information for facilities that have released its OCA to the
public. Such facilities must certify to EPA that they have
released the data to the public. EPA maintains a list of
those facilities and OCA information from those facilities is
exempt from all restrictions. As of April 14, 2000, 935
facilities have certified to EPA that they have released their
OCA information to the public.
3. Address-specific, online "Risk Indicator" system.
The proposed rule would create an online tool that would
allow users to enter a street address anywhere in the U.S.
and find out whether that address may be affected by a
worst-case chemical accident.
There are several limitations to this type of system. First,
the data is not precise enough to indicate with certainty
whether a particular address would or would not be affected
by a chemical accident at a nearby facility. The system
could mistakenly give a street address the equivalent of a
"clean bill of health" when a chemical accident might in fact
affect that address. Second, the user likely would not be
able to identify which facility is putting that
street address at risk in a chemical accident. The homeowner interested in
eliminating her or his vulnerability would have to then contact the unpaid
coordinator, visit a federal reading room perhaps hundreds
of miles away, or call EPA.
The proposal also discusses ongoing and additional efforts
to develop resources and documents related to risk
For more information, contact Rick Blum of OMB Watch by
phone at (202) 234-8494, by fax at (202) 234-8584 or email
OMB Watch (CFC #0889)
1742 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC 20009-1171
Phone: (202) 234-8494
Fax: (202) 234-8584
Right-To-Know Network: http://www.rtk.net/
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