Battle over worst-case EPA data online

Consumer advocates want the EPA to carry out its plan to post worst-case accident data online, but the FBI and chemical manufacturers object.

8 min read
When Pam Nixon's husband took a teaching position in West Virginia's Kanawha Valley, her family moved within a quarter-mile of a pesticide plant--something that was hard to avoid in an area that ranks second in the nation for chemical production.

Nixon was rushed to the hospital one day when the plant had an accidental release of toxins. Later she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that is only supposed to affect about one in a million people, though two others have it in her town of 250,000, she said. There is no proof that the nearby chemical plant is the cause of the disorder.

Driven by her experience, Nixon, along with a number of public interest groups, wants the Environmental Protection Agency to carry out its plan to post online reports detailing 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. But national security agencies and chemical manufacturers are fighting the plan, arguing that posting the data will lead to new forms of terrorism and "economic espionage."

"If I had known, I wouldn't have lived so close," said Nixon, a member of both the Kanawha-Putnam Emergency Planning Committee and an EPA working group. "The average citizen needs to know, so they can at least plan how to protect themselves in an emergency."

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

The debate over the site touches on a rising controversy spurred by the growth of the Net. Making public records and government services more accessible via the Net is a concept being pushed by the White House. At the same time, however, this information availability creates new security challenges for counterterrorism agencies and personal privacy advocates alike.

The EPA is expected to start collecting the risk management plans (RMPs) in January. The plans will include a company's emergency response program, along with estimates of the size of the population that would be affected by a "worst-case" accident. The intent originally was to post the reports on the Net right away, enabling community leaders, environmentalists, and citizens the chance to view the plants' reports.

Opposition to the plan involves powerful groups including the the FBI, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and some members of Congress, such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi).

"The report would say, [for example,] 'If tank 10 blows up, 100,000 people will be killed, and it will spread poison over 10 square miles,'" explained Joseph Anderson of the EPA's Office of Information Resources Management. "On one hand, you have a law that says it would be good if the people who lived near the place understood the risk--but on the other hand, terrorists could make this a reality. So that is the dilemma."

Nixon sits on an EPA working group made up of other environmentalists, state and local lawmakers, industry representatives, and agency staff, which is responsible for implementing the 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act. The provision requires about 66,000 companies to assess the danger of the worst possible accident that could hit their facilities.

Communities could use the information to work with the companies on emergency response plans and to encourage new practices that would decrease the risk of an accident. Upon reading a company's worst-case scenario, people also could decide to pick up and leave a given community.

Congress has directed the EPA to make the RMP reports 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, the FBI is concerned that making the data globally available on the Net could increase the likelihood of terrorism on U.S. soil. The FBI has been meeting with the EPA to debate the possibility that RMPs will be used to target towns that are stocked with explosive material. The FBI declined to comment for this story.

Moreover, chemical companies, which have long been concerned with the breadth of the EPA's award-winning site, argue that the widespread distribution of RMPs will threaten the security of their trade secrets. Many in the industry say the EPA's massive site is becoming a tool to piece together company inventories and business strategies. Placing the raw data online also could lead to confusion and irrational fears, the industry argues.

"The Net is going to make public information more available, but these networks also threaten personal privacy and trade secret protection--you can put the information together like a jigsaw puzzle," said Mark Greenwood, who worked for the EPA for 16 years and is now an environmental attorney working with chemical manufacturers for Ropes & Gray.

Greenwood said most companies would be willing to give out worst-case reports locally or distribute them on paper via state agencies. Another option is that reports could be posted online on a case-by-case basis, but should be reviewed first by a panel of industry members, for example.

"Putting that worst-case-scenario data on the Net is asking for trouble," said Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) spokesman Jeff Van.

The CMA also opposed the EPA's proposal to expand the collection of TRI data, which would be published on the Net.

"We have no problem reporting emissions. But the EPA also wants to expand the TRI information," he added. "Businesses will have to report a lot of very detailed, precise production information, which people who are involved in stealing economic secrets would love to have access to."

Proponents if the plan contend that citizens and plant workers have a right to know about the toxins and gases in their backyards and the likelihood they could lose their lives if a plant's largest tank blew.

Environmental groups say the concerns of the FBI and industry don't outweigh communities' need for the information.

"I believe this national security issue is a smoke screen," said John Chelen, executive director of the Unison Institute and a member of the EPA working group. Unison sponsors RTK Net, which builds free online databases with government information.

"This issue has been created by people who want to stop the data because of its potential public relations problems," Chelen added. "The industry has hated [Toxic Release Inventory] ratings, which show who are the biggest polluters. People said that was misleading and too expensive, but the [outcome] explicitly shows that if you put faces on performance, things happen. We have had a 50 percent reduction in these chemicals since the first reports became public over the past ten years."

The potential danger of terrorist attacks on chemical facilities also is being disputed.

The EPA did commission an outside firm to conduct a study that was supposed to determine the probability that terrorism would increase if the worst-case scenarios were put online. The report found that chemical facilities were two times more likely to be hit by terrorists if the data was posted on the Net, though no chemical plant has ever been attacked in the United States, according to the EPA.

"If you put certain restrictions on the data--like you couldn't [search] the population affected--it didn't have any significant effect on the risk level," said Karen Shanahan, who is developing the technological infrastructure to collect the risk management plans for the EPA.

"The agency's accident prevention subcommittee said based on that, the EPA should put the information on Net with the speed bumps," she added.

People within the agency and some of the RMP working group members have criticized the report for not adequately comparing the risk of terrorism to the dangers a community would be in if it was unaware of a chemical plant's worst-case accident scenario and not adequately prepared for an emergency.

"There is nothing in there estimating why publication would reduce risk and harm," Unison's Chelen said. "Somebody should compare this to the history of how terrorists act and pick targets."

The CMA's April report, "Terrorism in the Age of the Internet," cited numerous experts on the issue, some of whom raised concerns about the online availability of the worst-case-scenario data.

"It is important for policy makers and others who have responsibility for countering terrorist activities to keep in mind what the likely result of even a single successful terrorist attack could be," the report states. "The EPA's plan to put the worst-case-scenario data onto the Internet should also be examined and considered in the context of how prepared--or unprepared--the nation is to respond to a terrorist attack."

In an unexpected pairing, public interest groups and chemical facilities agree that the proposed "speed bumps" to access, such as limiting searches, would be ineffective. Consumer advocates say these restrictions could prevent an average, less technical citizens from accessing documents. The industry argues that sophisticated terrorists or competitors could get past such blocks.

The EPA also considered the idea of giving the FBI logs that would list who surfed the site, red-flagging queries for the most populated areas or attempts to copy the database. None of those ideas have been decided upon, although privacy advocates object to the site's visitors being individually monitored by the government.

"The [federal] Privacy Act says we can't do this sort of thing," added the EPA's Anderson. The EPA doesn't post data on the site pertaining to agency investigations and confidential business information such as chemical processes.

Activists and the EPA concede that the genie is out of the bottle, though. The majority of information found in the RMPs already is on the agency's site, they argue, and the scope of deaths or injuries that would occur following a worst-case accident could be figured out using census data and other information on the Net and in public documents.

"In today's information age, you could use the Web to go to any other service that has maps and plot where a plant is," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit group that provides online access to a variety of government information.

Unless the EPA works out the details with the FBI, however, the worst-case-scenario data may never hit the Net--at least not through the agency.

"We still feel very strongly that this information be made available to the public. Even if the EPA doesn't put this information up, it's likely it will get on the Net because it could be requested through the Freedom of Information Act," Shanahan said.