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A Reversal on Public Access to Chemical Data
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<-- Return To Right-To-Know or Left-To-Wonder?

Source: NY Times

March 27, 2001

A Reversal on Public Access to Chemical Data

By CARL HULSE

WASHINGTON, March 26 Citing national security, the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month rescinded a Clinton administration proposal to increase public access to information about the potential consequences of chemical plant accidents.

Advocates of disseminating the so- called worst-case scenarios submitted by chemical plant operators say the data could help communities prepare for disasters like industrial explosions. But members of Congress, industry officials and law enforcement authorities have argued that the information is too sensitive and could be used by terrorists to plot attacks.

Environmental Protection Agency officials said they wanted to discuss the "national security concerns" of the Clinton proposal with the Justice Department, an agency spokeswoman said.

The proposal would have allowed people to visit reading rooms and review risk management plans on computer systems that let them read the material but not copy or print it.

Originally, the agency was to post all the information on the Internet, but Congress blocked that plan in 1999.

Freedom-of-information groups eventually placed summaries of some reports on the Web.

Advocates of disclosing the full reports are concerned by the latest E.P.A. action, noting that the agency's new administrator, Christie Whitman, removed more than 1,000 hazardous industrial chemicals from New Jersey's so-called right-to-know list of those subject to state inspection while she was governor.

"It is quite ominous coming from an E.P.A. head who slashed two- thirds of the chemicals that New Jersey right-to-know regulates," said Rick Hind, legislative director of the Greenpeace toxics campaign.

The E.P.A's decision is one of several steps the new administration has taken to block actions initiated in the final days of the Clinton administration.

Those pushing for more disclosure said that even the Clinton plan fell far short of their goal of making more information available.

"It is still difficult for citizens to understand what threats face their communities," said Rick Blum, a spokesman for the public interest group OMB Watch.

At present, members of the public can arrange to visit federal document reading rooms and review risk management plans for plants in their immediate area. They are prohibited from removing or mechanically copying the information. Those who want to examine the plans of plants outside their communities are limited to 10 per month. The Clinton proposal, in addition to allowing people to view plans of factories outside their area, would have enhanced access for those deemed to be qualified researchers.

Environmental groups say intense lobbying by the chemical industry led Congress in 1999 to block release of the accident scenarios and impose tight restrictions on the information.

"It is just a smoke screen to shut down public information that is embarrassing to an industry that continues to use obsolete chemicals and processes that are inherently dangerous," Mr. Hind said about the national security issue.

But industry officials say Congress acted in response to the F.B.I. and others who said that allowing easy access to the information was tantamount to providing a road map to terrorists.

"We agreed with the experts," said Michael Walls, senior counsel for the American Chemistry Council. "The Department of Justice came in and said it was a risk."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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