February 10, 1999
Lawmakers Weigh National Security Issues and the Net
By JERI CLAUSING
WASHINGTON -- In a preview of what promises to be increasing clashes between national security interests and the Internet, House Commerce Committee members on Wednesday began debating whether or not Congress should limit the posting online of unclassified but sensitive information about potential disasters at the nation's chemical plants.
The committee's chairman, Thomas J. Bliley, concerned that plans by the Environmental Protection Agency to post "worst-case" risk management plans on the Internet would provide a roadmap for terrorists, called for the hearing, saying he wanted input for drafting legislation that would balance public safety concerns with the public's right to access such information.
But other committee members at the hearing on Wednesday questioned whether limiting the electronic dissemination of the information, which was mandated for public release by the Clean Air Act, would instead limit the ability of communities and citizens to prepare for and try to avert a much greater risk -- that of accidental spills of dangerous chemicals.
Representative Ron Klink, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, said there have been no terrorist attacks against chemical plants to date, and no evidence that they are being targeted. However, he said, there are 8,000 serious releases every year from chemical plants in this country, which result in 300 to 400 deaths.
"This is the known, the documented danger that EPA has been told to address," he said of the Clean Air Act provision, which also mandates that the information be available to the public, so communities and emergency officials know the risks and can plan for emergencies.
At issue is a plan developed by the EPA last year to post on the Internet information about worst-case scenarios in he event of an accident at one of 66,000 chemical plants and storage sites in the U.S. The Web site would have offered a searchable database that would have included potential casualty estimates. The agency dropped its plans to post the information in November, after Bliley and the intelligence community expressed fears that making the data so easily available would make the chemicals plants susceptible to terrorism.
But Bliley said the EPA has failed since to "propose a suitable plan for providing this information to third parties."
The FBI has suggested making the data available to local and state emergency and disaster officials through secure government computer systems.
Timothy Fields, an emergency response official with the EPA, said the agency is exploring other options, including the possibility of releasing the information in a "read-only" CD-ROM that could not be copied, duplicated or posted on the Internet.
Other committee members, however, questioned the need for Congress to interfere. Representative Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat, said the rules, which require companies to file the data with the EPA by the end of June, "were designed to prevent pollution and accidents."
It is crucial, she said, for residents of rural areas and volunteer fire departments to have easy access to the information.
"Are we willing to forsake the health and safety of people who live near these plants?" she asked. "The benefit to the communities far outweighs the small risk."
Advocates of releasing the information are also concerned that any proposals to limit the distribution of the data electronically will set a dangerous precedent for picking and choosing how the public can access non-classified government documents.
Several committee members pointed out the irony of discussing the threat in detail in a public committee meeting, referring to written testimony from E. James Monihan, national volunteer fire council director for the State of Delaware.
Monihan called the outskirts of Wilmington a "potential terrorist's dream" because of a major cluster of industrial structures, protected solely by volunteers, that includes several chemical plants, an oil refinery and an electric generator.
"The information in that testimony will paint an exact roadmap" for terrorists, said Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat. "The testimony will go on the committee's Web site, which can then be accessed by anyone in the world."
On Tuesday a coalition of advocacy groups wrote Bliley a letter asking that he reconsider plans for introducing legislation to limit the posting of the EPA data.
"Rather than taking advantage of the Internet's democratic potential to allow citizens the ability to access public information, these proposals view the Internet and its power to distribute information as a threat," said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, which sent the letter along with the American Association of Law Libraries, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Association of Newspaper Editors, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and OMB Watch.
"I think that there are broader issues here," said Rick Blum of OMB Watch, a government watchdog group based in Washington.
"I think what this really is is a wedge by industry to restrain communities' right to know," Blum said. "They are bringing up this terrorism threat, which is a red herring."
Bliley, however, insisted he is not trying to limit public access to hazard prevention information, but is simply trying to strike a sound balance.
"Reasonable people can debate how much the terrorist threat to these communities will be increased by posting worst-case scenarios on the Internet. But I believe the consequences of a just a single actual attack could be so deadly, so tragic, that we cannot ignore even a small increased risk. We are talking about the life or death of real people, fellow Americans," Bliley said.
A committee spokesman said Bliley will likely file legislation fairly soon after reviewing all the testimony from Wednesday's hearing. In addition to his concerns about what information the EPA posts on its Web site, Bliley has expressed strong concerns that environmental groups will get the information through the Freedom of Information Act and post the data on their own Web sites. Eric J. Wohlschlegel, deputy press secretary for the committee, said it was too soon to say whether the proposed legislation would attempt to address the posting of the sensitive data by third parties.
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