WASHINGTON -- Should the Environmental Protection Agency create an Internet Web site showing data about the worst possible accidents at each of 66,000 places around the U.S. where dangerous chemicals are stored?
That has been one of many pitched policy battles rumbling within the advisory committees used by the EPA. Some 100 environmental groups, the chief backers of the agency's growing electronic "Public Right to Know" program, have led the charge for the Web site. Chemical companies argued that, though the Clean Air Act requires such data to be made public, some of the "worst case" information might be publicized in a less obvious way. But the EPA seemed poised to decide against them.
But then this spring the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency jumped in, changing the whole nature of the fray. The worst-case data should not be released at all, they asserted, because it would give a foreign-based terrorist group the ability to find the most potentially dangerous industrial sites in any region of the U.S. with a few clicks on a laptop.
Now the EPA is rethinking its position, a shift that is likely to be one of many to come as Washington gets more serious about protecting the nation against terrorist attacks. "Our intention is to make sure the security agencies are comfortable," says an EPA official. So next week, the advisory committee, which had been voting 10-1 for the Web site, will be sent back to study less-risky options.
Effect of Bombings, Threats
Concerns about terrorism have escalated recently following bombings at two U.S. embassies in Africa, a U.S. retaliation and the threat of Osama bin Ladin, the head of a well-financed Middle East terrorist group, that he will strike at other U.S. targets. Such terrorist threats can change the politics of issues.
One example is Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, usually the rare Republican that environmentalists can count on in a fight. In the EPA debate, however, he is closer to the FBI. He recently asked President Clinton to intervene if the EPA can't reach a solution "without needlessly jeopardizing security." The congressman learned about the nation's vulnerabilities to the terrorism through his membership on the House Intelligence Committee. "On this issue, you have to strike a proper balance," he explains.
The International Association of Fire Chiefs, rarely seen in environmental battles, is feeling its way into the middle of this one. "While this may have been a good idea when it started, I'm not sure it remains one, given the change in circumstances," says Garry Briese, executive director of the association.
Under the EPA's proposed regulation, a company is supposed to describe what would happen to the surrounding area if its largest tank containing regulated chemicals suddenly failed. The data would show how far a plume of the chemicals, driven by the wind, would remain dangerous and how many people live within the danger radius of the plant.
'Giving Somebody a Blueprint'
"I have no objection to helping the public understand hazardous materials," adds Mr. Briese, "but when you begin laying down worst-case scenarios and plume information, you're basically giving somebody a blueprint."
Paul Orum, coordinator of the Working Group on Community Right to Know, the Washington-based coordinating committee for the environmental groups, remains unmoved. He has argued that "there is no known case of terrorists targeting industrial facilities." Publishing a database that ranks worst-case hazards, he maintains, is the only effective way to motivate companies to reduce the hazards.
"Taking information off of the Internet does nothing to reduce real hazards in real places," says Mr. Orum.
Mr. Orum's views have tended to dominate meetings of the EPA's "Electronic Submission Work Group," where 11 regular members discuss the issue, many of them from the public-sector or environment-related groups. Arthur Burk, a senior safety expert from DuPont Co., the only industrial member of the panel, has spent two years arguing that the worst-case data should be handled separately. He would share it with local emergency response groups and state officials, but only if they identified themselves. His ideas regularly get voted down, 10-1.
To help the panel, the EPA hired two outside security-consulting firms to study the problem. They found there have been two threats on chemical facilities: one in 1991 involving six unexploded pipe bombs found wired to chemical tanks near the U.S. Navy base at Norfolk, Va.; another last year when the FBI broke up a plot by four people to blow up a gas-processing plant in Bridgeport, Texas.
The consultants found that putting unrestricted information on the Internet would double the risk of terrorist acts by allowing them to "scan across the entire country for the 'best' targets." While the Clean Air Act requires the worst-case information to be made public, the EPA consultants suggested the least risky way would be to put it in a reading room and make the readers identify themselves.
Mr. Burk even showed the panel FBI videos of the Texas group plotting its strike, which was supposed to distract police from a nearby bank robbery. But, he says, the panel "decided it wasn't relevant."
'The Best Way to Go'
One panel member, Timothy Gablehouse, a Denver lawyer and chairman of a Colorado emergency-response group, says he might be in favor of an "electronic speed bump" that would prevent Internet researchers from getting all of the worst-case data at once. But he believes all of the information should be released. "Electronic information is the best way to go," he says, arguing that reading rooms would not help people understand the issue in rural Colorado.
Mr. Orum says that if the EPA attempts to use reading rooms or some other way to limit the distribution of the worst-case data, environmental groups will use the Freedom of Information Act to collect the information and put it on the Internet. "It's industries that bring these hazards into the communities that's the problem," he says, "it's not the hazards of the information that we need to address."
To emphasize his point, Mr. Orum used public records to collect some worst-case data about 10 DuPont plants and put it on the Internet. His Web page asserts that "seven million people in surrounding communities are at risk" from accidents involving releases of chlorine, ammonia and hydrofluoric acid.
Congress passed the amendments requiring publication of data about chemical plants in 1990 after assessing the 1984 disaster at Bhopal, India, where a release from one plant may have injured as many as 100,000 people. Now the EPA must weigh that against more recent disasters caused by terrorist truck bombs. "This is a tough balancing act for us," says the EPA official.
As for Mr. Burk, he plans to hang in there. "They recently asked me if I was interested in extending [on the advisory panel] for another two years. I figured, geez, if I don't stay on that committee the vote might be 10 to zero."
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