Under the Clean Air Act of 1990, the nation's roughly 66,000 chemical companies must provide the Environmental Protection Agency with risk management plans that include an "off-site consequence analysis" projecting the devastation and lives lost if a plant experienced its worst possible accident.
The reports are due June 20 and were supposed to be made public. Although the EPA dropped its plan to post them online, the FBI and a growing faction in Congress don't want the "worst-case" reports widely disseminated over computer networks for fear they could be used by terrorists to map out targets.
Now the White House has jumped into the debate. On behalf of the administration, the Justice Department on Friday floated the "Chemical Safety Information and Site Security Act," which not only exempts chemical companies' off-site consequence analysis reports from the Freedom of Information Act but goes even further by stating that they can't be made available to the public in electronic form.
"The [proposal] would continue to permit appropriate dissemination of this material, within sensible limits, without introducing unnecessary risks to public safety," Jon Jennings, acting assistant attorney general, stated in a letter to Vice President Al Gore.
The proposal is expected to blaze through Congress, although environmental activists say the legislation is an assault on the public's right to know.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday passed the proposal as part of Sen. Jim Inhofe's (R-Oklahoma) Fuels Regulatory Relief Act. The House Health and Environment subcommittee is holding a hearing on the White House bill on Wednesday.
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, for example.
But under the administration plan, the reports will only be made public in paper format and upon request.
In some cases they will be accessible electronically at depository libraries, but the computers cannot be online, hooked to a printer, or contain a floppy disc drive. Moreover, these electronic copies cannot allow a user to sort and rank the information to see which facilities could cause the most damage during an accident.
Opponents of the proposal argue that with the ease of the Web, communities could use worst-case accident scenarios to discover dangers in their own backyards 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 move or not settle in a town in the first place.
"This sets a horrible precedent for disclosure," said Rick Blum, a policy analyst for OMB Watch, a nonprofit organization that monitors the White House's Office of Management and Budget.
"On paper, the public will not be able to do comparative analysis or know how well a company's safety preparedness stacks up to other facilities" because they likely will only be able to get reports for their area, Blum added.
Consumer groups also argue that no proof has been offered to show 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.
Still, the EPA did commission an outside firm to conduct a study 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 were posted on the Net, though no chemical plant has ever been attacked in the United States, according to the EPA.