The recent bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and the Clinton administration's policy crusade against terrorism are heating up a fight to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from posting online chemical manufacturers' "worst-case" accident scenarios.
As early as January, the EPA plans to electronically collect reports detailing about 66,000 chemical manufacturers' worst-case accident scenarios with an estimate of how many people would die if toxic gases were released, if an explosion took place, or if dangerous liquids were spilled. The agency had then proposed publishing the material on the Net to increase public access.
In an expected move, FBI officials highlighted the terrorist attacks in Africa during a meeting early this month as good reason for keeping all or part of companies' risk management plans (RMP) off the Net. The plans include an off-site consequence analysis (OCA), which is at the heart of the controversy.
"In light of increased awareness or terrorist risk, the FBI has advised EPA that none of the OCA data be posted on the Internet," state the minutes from a September 9 meeting of the EPA's Accident Prevention Subcommittee.
Congress directed the EPA to make the information public but didn't indicate how, and 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.
However, national security agencies and chemical manufacturers argue that releasing the data over a global medium will lead to new forms of terrorism and "economic espionage." There also is concern that the general public will be confused or frightened by the raw data about the harm of a large gas tank blowing or dangerous amounts of toxic fumes being released in their area, for example.
The EPA's 100,000-page Web site already 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.
The EPA site touches on a struggle within the Clinton administration. Vice President Al Gore is leading the push to make public records and government services more accessible via the Net. But the administration also backed a government initiative to fight cyberterrorism earlier this year.
The EPA's subcommittee did agree that at a bare minimum, the risk management reports should be made available to communities, state agencies, local emergency planning committees, and research institutions via the Net.
But when it came to the off-site consequence analysis reports and listing facilities' chemical quantities online, the subcommittee remained locked in a debate.
Some attendees agreed that it is unclear how many terrorist acts would be prevented by barring online publication of the data. Others contended that if chemical plants and communities use the reports to greatly reduce accident risks, then terrorists might not have an incentive to hit explosive or toxic facilities.
"The goal is to reduce the overall risk, and information empowers the public. By reducing the risk from a worst-case scenario through public pressure, the terrorist risk will also be reduced," read comments summarized in the meeting minutes. "If the sensitive data elements are eliminated from public access via the Internet, the heart of the program is also eliminated by removing public oversight."
Setting up "roadblocks" to entry of the site was one suggestion. Creating a password-protected Net site, eliminating the area distance and populations affected by a large accident, or prohibiting the EPA from publishing the worst-case data online are all still under consideration, but many agreed that these measures are not likely to stop sophisticated terrorists.
The subcommittee only has a few months to decide the issue, but some members say the EPA has to make the data public whether it is on the Net or not.
"Regardless of what the subcommittee decides, it is likely that the data will be posted on the Internet and in a way that is unprotected," concluded Tim Fields, acting administrator of the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.