House OKs bill to bar sensitive EPA postings

House OKs bill to bar sensitive EPA postings

By Christopher J. Dorobek

GCN Staff

The House has signed on to a Senate bill that would keep sensitive data about chemical plants collected by the Environmental Protection Agency off the Internet.

Critics of the bill argue that it would create a new category of information: sensitive but public information that is kept out of the public domain. Nonetheless, the bill faces few remaining legislative hurdles and appears destined to become law.

'These are unprecedented restrictions on information that the taxpayers have paid for,' said Rick Blum, a policy analyst for OMB Watch, a Washington interest group.

The Fuels Regulatory Relief Act, sponsored by Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), moved a step closer to passage July 21 when the House unanimously approved an amended version. The Senate passed a similar version of the bill in June [GCN, July 12, Page 3].

The bill, S 880, would essentially uphold an EPA decision to refrain from posting worst-case scenario data for chemical spills as reported by about 69,000 chemical plants.

The idea of posting the data online has been the subject of controversy. The information, submitted to the EPA by chemical companies in June, is required by the Clean Air Act. The reports provide information about emergency preparations at the country's chemical plants. The reports are supposed to help communities formulate disaster plans.

Weighing risks

Law enforcement and national security officials have said the data could benefit terrorists. But citizen groups and several House Democrats have argued that the greater risk is from chemical accidents and that preparing for worst-case scenarios helps mitigate the threat.

Rep. Thomas J. Bliley (R-Va.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, hailed the House action as a compromise. 'I've always thought we could protect our national security while giving communities access to this information,' he said. 'This measure strikes the right balance and fixes the problem that would have placed this information into the hands of terrorists.'

Like the Senate bill, the House version sets a one-year moratorium on the widespread disclosure of the worst-case scenario data. The bill would also require the administration to conduct a study to determine the risks and benefits of disclosure.

During the one-year period, local authorities would get access to the worst-case data and could share the information with any other organizations responsible for responding to chemical spills.

Blum said the new rules would make it difficult for communities to compare chemical plant emergency plans. ''''

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