EPA faces Web impasse

Bowing to pressure from lawmakers and the government’s national security
community, the Environmental Protection Agency will not post online its worst-case
projections of the release of toxins by chemical plants.

After Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.) began looking into the plans for posting the data,
national security officials raised concerns that such data could increase the possibility
of terrorist attacks.

“We must protect our right to know while at the same time not do anything that
makes terrorism any easier,” Bliley said.

The worst-case scenarios are part of the risk management plans that the Clean Air Act
requires more than 69,000 chemical companies to submit to EPA. Companies must submit the
first of these plans by June 21.

Initially, EPA intended to post the plans online so local communities would be able to
access them for emergency-planning programs. But EPA officials have since met with
officials from the FBI, the Office of Management and Budget, the National Security
Council, the Justice Department and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

EPA chief information officer Alvin Pesachowitz said the interagency group has decided
that EPA can make the information publicly available but should not post the data on its
Web site.

“Right now, it is administration policy that the data might pose a threat in the
sense that terrorist groups might be able to get a large volume of information about these
plants and then be able to select which ones might be the weakest,” he said.

The issue pits making such information widely accessible online against national
security concerns that terrorists could use the data to plot an attack.

Rick Blum, a policy analyst for OMB Watch, a public interest group in Washington, said
the issue could set a precedent for how the government treats public information for
posting on Web sites.

“Right now we’re having criteria put on public, unclassified information that
is limiting public access to it,” using rules that are not written into law, Blum
said (see related column, Page 21).

Timothy Fields Jr., acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Solid Waste and
Emergency Response Office, said Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community
Right-to-Know Act in 1986 following the chemical accident in Bhopal, India. The law
enhanced community planning and required EPA to provide information on chemical handling
to the public.

“The challenge before us is to determine how to provide citizens with the data
they need to make informed decisions about reducing risk while not providing an easy
targeting tool. Therefore, the goal is to strike the proper balance between chemical risk
reduction and national security,” Fields said last month at a hearing of the Senate
Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property and
Nuclear Safety.

From a terrorism perspective, posting such data could have disastrous consequences,
said Robert M. Burnham, the chief of FBI’s Domestic Terrorist Section.

The risk management plans themselves would not provide enough information to carry out
a criminal attack, he said. “In conjunction with the numerous sites already available
on the Internet containing how-to literature on bomb-making, surveillance and counter
surveillance, and terrorist tactics and devices, it adds to the arsenal of potential
criminals,” Burnham told the subcommittee.

If such data is posted online, a terrorist, criminal or disgruntled employee could
identify the worst-case scenarios and fine-tune an attack, said Robert E. Blitzer, former
section chief for the FBI’s Domestic Terrorist and Counterterrorism Planning Section.
A criminal could then proceed with one of the scenarios at a facility near a large
civilian or military community, he said.

But proponents of releasing the data said complete and unimpeded public dissemination
of such information has helped reduce releases of toxic chemicals into the environment.

The posting of the worst-case scenarios will help improve state and local
governments’ disaster plans, said Thomas Natan, research director for the National
Environmental Trust.

“This is about reducing hazards in communities and reducing chemical
accidents,” Blum said.

Often communities compare a plan at one plant to the plans at another to evaluate
emergency preparedness, he said.

Furthermore, the overall data is of minimal use to a terrorist, Blum said, because
“this is highly technical data.”

The entire debate could be nullified by a Freedom of Information Act request, attorney
Thomas M. Susman said.

“The FOIA says that if the government has information, it has no discretion to
withhold that information unless it fits into one of the act’s exemptions,” he
told the subcommittee. “The exemptions do not apply here.”

A House staff member said Bliley is considering proposing legislation to prevent the
public posting of the data, although the details of the bill remain unclear.  

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