04 October 2001 19:18 [Source: ICIS news]
WASHINGTON (CNI)--The US chemical industry urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Thursday to temporarily halt public access to "worst-case" chemical plant accident scenarios in light of last month's terrorist attacks.
Fred Webber, president of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), said in a letter today to EPA administrator Christie Whitman: "The EPA should revisit - and temporarily revise - its policies on the availability of some industry data."
"Specifically," said Webber, "we encourage you to take immediate action to temporarily prevent access to off-site consequence analysis data collected as a part of the agency's risk management plan."
Off-site consequence analysis data, also known as worst-case scenarios, detail the worst possible consequences to the public and environment near specific US chemicals production facilities or storage areas in the event of a total and uncontrolled rupture or other catastrophic release of the location's chemicals products. US firms that produce, store or transport hazardous chemicals were required by law to compile the data under risk management programs (RMPs) and furnish the information to EPA.
When RMP was being implemented by EPA in 1998-1999, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and various US police associations joined the chemical industry in expressing concerns about EPA's plans to make the worst-case data available to the public, arguing that such data could assist terrorists in identifying the "best" US targets among chemicals plants for possible terrorist attacks.
In response to those concerns, Congress passed a law in 1999 that directed EPA and the Justice Department to limit public access to the data by allowing it to be viewed only in tightly controlled reading rooms.
Since the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, several government agencies have pulled from their Web sites information they fear could help terrorists launch another attack.
EPA, for instance, has removed from its Web site the chemical plant risk management plan database - information on hazards at 15 000 plants nationwide, and each company's prevention and emergency response plan.
But sensitive information about hypothetical worst-case scenarios still is available to the public on a restricted basis at about 70 government reading rooms located throughout the country.
In his letter to Whitman today, Webber said: "In light of recent events, we believe it would be prudent if the agency reviewed the system by which this information is made available to ensure that all that can be done to protect it from being misused is, in fact, being done."
Webber stressed that the industry's recommendations should be viewed as temporary measures, taken to evaluate the integrity of a system that was developed two years before the 11 September attacks.
"We would encourage you to conduct this evaluation with the assistance of federal law enforcement and national security agencies and the new Homeland Defense Office. It is our hope that the evaluation will conclude that the information can once again be made available, with appropriate risk management controls," said the ACC.
Webber added that these actions can be taken without any permanent damage to the public's right-to-know about hazards in their communities. "The temporary, short-term loss of access to this data would pale in comparison to the loss due to a terrorist attack that was aided by the availability of the information," the ACC president concluded.
However, right-to-know activists criticised EPA for taking the risk management information off its Web site and the chemical industry for seeking to block all access to the worst-case scenario data.
"There has been an understandable but we believe inappropriate response to cut back on public access to government information," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a government watchdog group. "People deserve to know what dangers they are facing in their communities so they can protect themselves."
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