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Congress mulls "worst-case" data online

Although the EPA abandoned plans to post chemical manufacturers' "worst-case" accident scenarios online, federal lawmakers want to ban any such proposal.

    Although the Environmental Protection Agency abandoned plans to post chemical manufacturers' "worst-case" accident scenarios on the Net, federal lawmakers want to ban any such proposal, arguing the data could make the plants prime targets for terrorist attacks.

    As previously reported, Congress mandated under the Clean Air Act of 1990 that the nation's roughly 66,000 chemical companies make their risk management plans public. The EPA intended to put those reports online this month.

    But the FBI See related story: 
Battle over worst-case EPA data online and the Chemical Manufacturers Association opposed posting the "off-site consequence analysis" portion of the reports--which project in body counts and square miles the potential devastation if a community's chemical plant experienced its worst possible explosion or accidental release of emissions.

    Some members of the House Commerce Committee want to make sure that data never goes live on the Net, despite the fact that the EPA already dropped its plan.

    Rep. Tom Bliley (R- Virginia) is pushing for legislation that would bar the EPA and environmental groups from posting the information. He said when Congress passed the Clean Air Act, it intended to make the data available to communities, not the world.

    "Back then we never dreamed all that information, including human injury projections for worst-case chemical accidents, could be easily searchable from Boston to Baghdad, from Los Angeles to Libya, on the World Wide Web," Bliley said during a committee hearing today.

    Republican members of the committee emphasized it was not the release of the information that bothered them but the way it was disseminated.

    "Let me stress that no one, including the law enforcement and intelligence communities, is advocating that we should keep this information from communities that host such facilities," Bliley said.

    House Commerce panels were scheduled today to hold hearings on the threats posed by the release of chemical data.

    Congress directed the EPA to make the risk management plans public, but didn't indicate how, although the Electronic Freedom of Information Act signed by President Clinton in 1996 states that once a federal record becomes public it must be released to the masses, via the Net or CD-ROM, for example.

    The EPA's 100,000-page Web site offers access to an array of databases, including the Toxics Release Inventory reports for U.S. manufacturers and businesses, which can be searched by zip code.

    Still, proponents of the EPA's initial plan contend that citizens and plant workers have a right to know about the toxins and gases in their backyards, and the likelihood of losing their lives if a plant's largest tank blew.

    Environmental activists say that, with the ease of the Web, communities could have used worse-case accident scenarios to work with companies on their emergency response plans, and to encourage new practices that would decrease the risk of an accident. Upon reading a company's accident-consequence analysis, people also could decide to pick up and leave a given community, or not to move to a town in the first place.

    Reuters contributed to this report.