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Risk Reduction Imperiled by
Proposed Disaster Secrecy


8/25/98

Tony Earl, 608-251-5000
Fred Millar, 703-998-0996, fmillar@erols.com

After the tragic 1984 Bhopal India Toxic Gas Disaster, the public became aware that millions of citizens living in U.S. communities large and small were at risk of a similar catastrophic accident. In response to those citizen concerns, Congress enacted new laws in 1990 which require 66,000 of the most dangerous chemical facilities to produce new risk documents including "worst case accident scenarios" for use by the public, government agencies and those who work in and around those facilities to advance the cause of risk reduction.

Some of the worst case accident scenarios will reveal potential Bhopal-like events in which toxic gases could travel over 20 miles making emergency response difficult if not futile in those cases. Accordingly it is imperative there be a vigorous community dialogue about risk reduction. Such a dialogue should be fully informed and accessible to the public.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is charged with implementing the 1990 law, is planning to make accident risk and risk reduction information available in a cost efficient matter on the Internet. Such a proposal reduces paperwork burdens on companies and agencies and provides full access to the public for information on facility risks.

Unfortunately, there are some in the petrochemical industry who are lobbying the U.S. EPA and the Congress to withhold the Internet dissemination of "worst case scenarios" using the rationale that this information would be too easily accessible by potential terrorists who in turn would use it to inflict death and destruction.

One of us [Gov. Earl] is a member of the U.S. EPA's official federal advisory committee working on implementation of the 1990 law, and we know that agency is seriously grappling with these issues. The agency and our committee have consulted with security experts in an effort to find an appropriate balance between the public's right to know and community security.

It should be understood that calculations of "worst case scenarios" are not intended mainly for emergency planning. Those calculations are bound to stimulate a dialogue toward serious efforts for risk reduction within the affected facilities. Such efforts might include substitution of safer chemicals or reductions in volumes and pressures. We know a great deal can be achieved in this area, but this is not likely to happen without sustained public pressure from those who are most at risk in communities near plant sites.

It is against industry's own best interests to try to hold back efforts to ensure the public's right to know about accident risks. In the first place, this kind of information will inevitably get out to the Internet if only through the efforts of increasingly technically sophisticated public interest groups. Second, there is a great deal of chemical facility inventory information which is already available. Since there is no history of terrorist attacks on chemical facilities, many responsible major companies have voluntarily disseminated "worst case scenarios" to the public since 1995. For example, in Charleston, West Virginia, the public got maps showing two of the most important potential terrorist targets imaginable. These facilities owned by Dupont and Rhone-Poulenc (now Rhodia) are located in a dense urban area and have a disaster potential similar to that that occurred in Bhopal. We believe that the companies' responsible actions have made that area more rather than less secure.

Worst case scenario information will no doubt stimulate discussion about both accident and security risks. If a facility has doubts about the adequacy of its security, it has two options: It can beef up its security measures such as by erecting concrete walls and other barriers to terrorist attack and/or it can significantly reduce the disaster risks within the plant.

It doesn't make sense to constrict the public's right to know in this important area. We should push for real risk reductions and move to inherently safer facilities that will protect residents from potential accidents as well as remove potential risks from terrorism.

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Tony Earl is former Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and former Governor of Wisconsin

Fred Millar is a consultant on chemical accident prevention and former Toxics Director at Friends of the Earth

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