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EPA backpedals on online data release

Amid pressure from national security forces, the agency scraps plans to post "worst-case" accident scenarios for chemical manufacturers around the country.

    Amid pressure from national security forces, the Environmental Protection Agency has scrapped plans to post online "worst-case" accident scenarios for about 66,000 chemical manufacturers around the country.

    Mandated by Congress to make the chemical companies' risk-management plans public, the EPA intended to put them online early next year.

    But controversy See related story: 
Battle over worst-case EPA data online erupted with regard to 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.

    The FBI, along with the Chemical Manufacturers Association and some members of Congress such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), staunchly fought posting the data online, arguing that it could highlight prime targets for deadly terrorist attacks.

    Despite testimony from public interest groups, the EPA has been swaying toward the FBI's perspective on the data, and has abandoned its Net disclosure plan. The agency now is searching for ways to make the data available to communities on a less global scale.

    "We sent a letter to about 100 members of Congress [who were concerned] and told them everything but that part of the report will go on the Net," said Karen Shanahan, who is developing the technological infrastructure to electronically compile the risk-management plans for the EPA.

    "The EPA will now have to figure out how the public will get this information," she continued. "We could create a closed system, in which it's a private database for state and local agencies to access. But people in communities may want to know, too."

    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.

    Chemical companies have argued, though, that competitors will use the breadth of data already on the EPA's site to piece together trade secrets. Although the debate surrounding the plans to disclose risk-management data focused on national security issues, the EPA's reversal marks a victory for the chemical industry.

    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.

    "What is in a product, inventories, chemicals flowing into a company--that is sensitive information," said Mark Greenwood, who worked for the EPA for 16 years and is now an environmental attorney working with chemical manufacturers for Ropes & Gray.

    "This recent decision by the EPA was prudent," he added. "It is a reality that it could be used by someone who has terrorist intents, although what we don't know is how probable that threat is. But the FBI spends a lot of time thinking about that."

    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.

    "I think the [EPA's decision] will clearly reduce public access to the information and reduce the likelihood that companies will prevent hazards," said Paul Orum, coordinator of the Working Group on Community Right-To-Know.

    "The whole point of the law was to prevent pollution, save lives, and protect property by using public disclosure to increase pressure on companies to reduce real, actual, physical hazards at the source," he added.

    Orum said that, because the EPA still has to make the data public, newspapers, public interest groups, and private parties will have a critical role to play in getting the information out.

    "The information will come out because people have a right to communicate," he said. "But it remains to be seen how the EPA and the chemical industry will honor the public's right to know."