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EPA Will Not Distribute Chemical Accident Data Over the Internet


Draft: January 28, 1999

There is a serious threat to our Right-To-Know about toxics in our communities. EPA has decided not to fully disclose the data from their latest Chemical Accident Prevention and Risk Management Planning (RMP) project to the public over the internet or in any other manner. If fully disclosed, this data would finally fulfill the promise of the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). It would provide immediate access over the internet to the worst case scenario of accidental toxic release for 66,000 industrial facilities across the U.S. TRI was a response to the devastating chemical accident in Bophal, India that killed thousands of innocent people along with the growing awareness in the U.S. that chemical factories and other industries here posed the same potential for disaster. The TRI was a step in the right direction, making public the toxic releases of industrial facilities, but did little to make us aware of the potential for catastrophic accidents except in the most general manner.

A Little Background on TRI
TRI was not meant to be a direct regulatory tool. Rather its intent was to place toxic information in the hands of the public who might then bring pressure upon industry to reduce its releases of toxics. When the 1987 TRI report was released dozens of community groups analyzed the data and published reports and many newspapers published articles. In 1996 I began an annual mapping on the internet of TRI releases in my home county, Santa Cruz, mapping all releases from the first year of reporting to the present. This led to my creating the interactive mapping component for EDF's Chemical Scorecard. The Scorecard allows anyone access to maps and information about TRI facilities and the chemicals they release nationwide. Polluting industries were put in the public eye. Over the years this has resulted in a reduction in TRI releases though it has also resulted in increased transfers of toxic materials to other communities - but that is another issue that I will save for a subsequent discussion. Nonetheless, national reporting of TRI and access to national TRI data over the internet and on CD-Rom products - full disclosure - has resulted in increased awareness of the toxics in our communities. This awareness has led to a doubling of the number of chemicals reported, increases in the types of industries that must report, proposed lowering of some reporting thresholds, cradle to grave accounting of industrial toxics and, arguably, the creation of EPA's RMP/Offsite Consequence Analysis (OCA).

Industry Claims Threat of Terrorism
Now, twelve years after the initial year of TRI reporting, the RMP information that would give us the knowledge to protect ourselves against such disasters is to be made available. A component of RMP is the Offsite Consequence analysis (OCA). Sadly, industry has made a concentrated effort to thwart full dissemination of this information. Their assault on our Right-To-Know was a success - to a degree. EPA has decided that the OCA will not be available on the internet because it would make these facilities targets for terrorism and place nearby neighborhoods in jeopardy. Yet, most of the information including name of facility, address of facility, and the chemicals they have on-site will be available on the internet (view the RMP*Info prototype) as well as RMP*Comp, the program facilities use to calculate their OCA! If terrorism was the real threat, this would be all the information terrorists would need.

Not Terrorism but Full Public Disclosure
It is unlikely that terrorism is the threat that industry really worries about. Rather the threat that they most fear is increased public disclosure - more Right-To-Know. You can follow the link to a telling statement by the Vice-President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on this issue. In the Final Report of the Electronic Submission Workgroup several members advocating free access said that less than full disclosure of the RMP/OCA data is a greater risk to communities than terrorism. Their comments are worth repeating here:

A second group of Workgroup members believe that there should be unlimited Internet access to all RMP data. Their argument is simple: the RMP is community right-to-know information and should be made available to the public. They cite the language in the law, which specifies that EPA shall make RMP data "available to the public." From their point of view the "hazard" comes from the chemicals that are present in the community, not from the information about the chemicals being publicized. In fact, they believe a successful RMP program, including full disclosure of OCA data, will reduce the inherent hazards in the community.

They note that there are many valid and important uses for RMP information by people who live well beyond the immediate community where a facility is located. A community might want to compare one of their facilities to another similar facility in another State to see how their facility compares in terms of vulnerability zones and prevention practices. Researchers will use the RMP information to develop comparative studies on chemical hazards and effective accident prevention programs. Public interest groups anticipate that the data will be critical to their work in reducing accident risks throughout the country.

Members who favor full, unlimited access to RMP data argue that the threat of potential terrorism does not outweigh the public's right to full access of RMPs. They also question whether restricting information (as opposed to reducing the actual hazards) provides any real barrier to terrorism. They argue potential terrorists could calculate the vulnerable zone around a facility and estimate how many people are at risk without RMP*Info by combining existing EPCRA reports with EPA guidance on vulnerability analysis and software mapping programs. Larger facilities are already highly visible from the road and, in some cases, containers are clearly labeled. In addition, circles of vulnerability are more frequently being published in newspapers, and may be put on the Internet through newspapers going on-line. Even with the RMP, some argue that it wouldn't be very useful to an amateur terrorist because the RMP will only provide the address of the facility and the name and quantity of the hazardous substance, but not the specific location of the substance on site.

Also, many courageous citizens and groups have made valiant efforts to prevent this from happening. I have provided links to their comments and websites below. Also, there are many resources now available to us on the internet that will help us obtain and understand this information and even perform our own OCA for various facilities.

Very Limited Access
It is doubtful that EPA will release even the RMP data (without OCA) to the public in its raw form. Rather, one will use programs such as RMP*Info to submit requests for information on a single facility or small geographic area. Supposed terrorists will still be able to easily find out information about specific facilities, but this will thwart any efforts to make comparisons between regions, industries and the like on a national level. It will also thwart efforts by researchers to do more comprehensive studies on the distribution of toxics in our society. This is what concerns industry most - nationwide public disclosure - not vulnerability to terrorism.

Environmental Justice Research
This should also be of great interest to environmental justice researchers, like myself, who use federal data to study the relationships between demographics and toxics. Many who use this data acknowledge that the data available in usable form represents only a small portion of the potential toxic risks that communities face. Full release of RMP and OCA would place a much more complete database in the hands of researchers allowing much more comprehensive investigations of environmental inequality, hopefully leading to more equitable distribution of the negative environmental aspects of production as well as leading to a reduction in the total amounts of toxics produced and used in our communities.

Cummulative Exposure Project
Another related database that will increase our knowledge of exposure to toxics in our communities is EPA's Cumulative Exposure Project (CEP). Data for the cumulative effects of toxics from multiple sources were collected at the census tract level and analyzed by EPA. The raw data was to be available in October, 1998. Now it is to be available to the public in February, 1999. This data is ideally suited to environmental justice research. I have heard rumors that the data has already been released to at least one national environmental group. Maybe more. I would appreciate it if anyone can confirm this and help make the data more widely available as soon as possible. The Final Report (revised 12/98) Modeling Cumulative Outdoor Concentrations of Hazardous Air Pollutants is available for download at http://www.epa.gov/oppecumm/air/air.htm.

To receive EPA updates on RPM software and other issues related to RMP subscribe to the official EPA-RMP listserv by sending the message, "SUBSCRIBE EPA-RMP YOURFIRSTNAME YOURLASTNAME" to listserver@unixmail.rtpnc.epa.gov

If you have questions, comments, or insight into this issue I'd love to hear from you. Please contact me at meuser@mapcruzin.com. The links follow:

Recent related links to my RTK Newsflash
http://www.mapcruzin.com/scruztri/docs/newsflsh.htm

EPA Whistleblower. What happens when an EPA employee promotes increased Right-To-Know in a community.
http://members.aol.com/socejp/

EPA Cummulative Exposure Project. Click on the menu item "AIR", then click on the icon "Maps and Data."
http://www.epa.gov/oppecumm/index.htm

Aegis Research Corporation. This firm published the report, Security Study: Analysis of Terrorist Risk Associated with Public Availability of Offsite Consequence Analysis Under EPA's Risk Management Plan that led EPA to its decision.
http://www.aegisresearch.com/
You may order this free report from National Service Center for Environmental Publications. Use EPA publication number EPA550R97003.
http://www.epa.gov/ncepihom/orderpub.html

Chemical Accident Prevention and Risk Management Planning (RMP) main website.
http://www.epa.gov/swercepp/acc-pre.html

RMP*Info and RMP*Submit System Development. Two EPA computer programs used by facilities to submit their RMP and OCA data and for the public to retrieve that information (without the OCA) via the internet.
http://www.epa.gov/swercepp/rmp-dev.html

RMP*Comp is a free program from NOAA that you can use to complete the offsite consequence analyses OCA yourselves. Please let me know if this program becomes unavailable and I will make it available here.
http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/chemaids/rmp/rmp.html

RPM*Submit page - more detail. You can download the program here. http://www.epa.gov/ceppo/rmpsubmt.html

RMP*Info page - see a prototype of the query page here.
http://www.epa.gov/ceppo/pubs/srmp/start.htm

The Working Group on Community Right-to-Know has worst case scenario maps of some DuPont facilities and much more critical information on their website.
http://www.rtk.net/wcs/

Final Report of the Electronic Submission Workgroup, June 18, 1997. This report precedes the workgroup meetings listed below.
http://www.epa.gov/swercepp/pubs/rmp-rprt.html

Monthly Status Updates on RMP Electronic Submission Phase II

Accident Prevention Subcommittee Meeting Summaries, Materials, Comments, Decisions

November 9, 1998

September 9, 1998

February 3, 1998

December 17, 1997

May 9, 1997 Meeting

December 11, 1996

September 24, 1996

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