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Senate vote nears on posting chemical info online

Closely watched legislation to ban the online posting of chemical manufacturers' "worst-case" accident scenarios could face a Senate vote by early next week, sources say.

Closely watched legislation to ban the online posting of chemical manufacturers' "worst-case" accident scenarios could face a Senate vote by early next week, sources say.

Sen. James Inhofe's (R-Oklahoma) Fuels Regulatory Relief Act would prohibit the online publication of chemical companies' risk management plans, which include an "off-site consequence analysis" projecting the devastation and lives lost were a plant to experience its worst possible accident. Proponents of the bill fear that posting such data online would make U.S. citizens more vulnerable to terrorism.

Inofe's bill, which was first floated by the White House, passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in May. Now the legislation is set for a full Senate vote, although the House version of the bill has been stalled in subcommittee.

"We're trying to work out an agreement with Republicans and Democrats to try and bring it to the floor soon," said Gary Hoitsma, Inofe's spokesman.

The concern over the worst-case data epitomizes an ongoing struggle between the desire to step up public disclosure through the Net and concerns about keeping sensitive information off the global network.

Under the Environmental Protection Agency's See related story: 
Battle over worst-case EPA data online Clean Air Act of 1990, the nation's roughly 66,000 chemical companies must provide the EPA with the reports.

By June 21 the EPA will start collecting the reports, and then they will be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, meaning lawmakers will have to scramble to put standards in place in less than two weeks.

Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have raised concerns about the bill, and in the House aides say they are still waiting on some compromise language from the Clinton administration. But the clock is ticking.

"It's finger-biting time," said one legislative aide who is working on the bill in the House.

The EPA had planned to put the reports online to comply with the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, signed by President Clinton in 1996, which states that once a federal record becomes public it must be released to the masses via the Net or CD-ROM.

But the EPA dropped the plan to post the reports online because the FBI and a growing faction in Congress argued that if the data were widely disseminated over computer networks it might be used by terrorists to map out targets.

Restricting data
Sen. John Chafee (R-Rhode Island) is expected to introduce an amendment coauthored by Inhofe when the bill hits the floor to ensure that the worst-case scenario data will not be available under the Freedom of Information Act--although emergency response teams would have access. The new proposal also calls on states to set up depositories that would allow public access to the reports, but in "read-only" format to prevent the data from being copied in paper or electronic form.

However, under the draft, even emergency response teams wouldn't have access until June 2000, pushing back the deadline for disclosure and fueling criticism.

"It guts the public's right to know and doesn't do a damn thing to reduce hazards," said Paul Orum, coordinator for the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know.

Another controversial stipulation would make it a crime for state or federal employees to give people unauthorized access to the data. Critics say librarians, for example, might be held liable if a patron sneaks by with a copy of an off-site consequence analysis, and that the employee would face an unspecified fine and up to a year in prison.

"This amendment strikes the public access section and puts in a new one which makes it impossible for people to get the information in anyway at all, unless states set up terminals," said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"We feel that if there is a security concern, the information should not be blamed," he added. "The law should be that plants have tighter security and a buffer zone between schools and public places and reduce the hazards in the first place."

During a House Health and Environment subcommittee hearing last month on the White House proposal, some witnesses were concerned that the bill would preempt state law and leave local officials no guidelines regarding dissemination of the information while federal regulators drafted rules.

Is there a terrorist threat?
In April, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) sent a letter to the Justice Department calling on the agency to further investigate the true terrorist threat chemical facilities face and come up with security plans to reduce the risk.

"I am concerned that restricting the availability of information regarding accidental releases of chemicals as a sole approach to addressing the threat of terrorist attacks on chemical plants may sacrifice the public's right to know while ignoring more direct approaches to reducing the risks posed by terrorism," Waxman stated in the letter.

"Site security measures may likely emerge as more important in reducing terrorist risk than information security measures," he added. "Additionally, if past experience with right-to-know laws is any indication, public disclosure will likely encourage chemical plants to adopt inherently safer practices which would reduce the hazard associated with these facilities to both terrorist attack and to accidents."

Meanwhile, consumer advocates say citizens deserve to know whether there is a major accident waiting to happen in their backyards.

"Problems of chemical plant safety and the threat to the surrounding community are real, and the public needs to access information about the risks posed from these chemicals," John Chelen, executive director of the Unison Institute, stated in an analysis of the House and Senate bills.

Consumer groups also argue that there is no solid proof that terrorists would use the data to cause harm. 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's Toxics Release Inventory has a long track record of providing public access to chemical releases in a searchable, electronic format," Chelen stated. "There have been no publicly known terrorist attacks on any facility reporting under TRI in the program's ten-year history."