INSIGHT: Congress, industry worry that EPA will dump dangerous data

23 February 2012 16:05  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick

Congress warns that EPA disclosures put plants at riskWASHINGTON (ICIS)--Members of Congress and industry officials worry that Obama administration plans to publically disclose chemical plants’ vulnerabilities and emergency response plans could expose as many as 13,000 sites to potential terrorist attacks.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that it plans to restore public Internet access to data about the quantity and specific on-site location of hazardous substances at some 13,000 US chemical production, storage and transit facilities.

EPA said that beginning in July 2012 it will post on its internet page details provided to the agency by plant operators about possible on-site consequences of a release of hazardous substances.

Under the EPA’s risk management plan (RMP) requirement, chemical production, storage and transit facilities must provide detailed information about possible worst-case consequences of a release of highly toxic substances from their sites.

The risk management plans must include an off-site consequence analysis (OCA). That analysis describes possible downwind spread of a toxic substance and how many neighbourhoods, schools, hospitals and residents might be affected.

The RMPs also must include what in EPA rule-speak is called a “non-off-site consequence analysis” – meaning, presumably, an on-site consequence analysis, detailing what might happen in a breach of storage tanks or production vessels when the leak or vapours are confined to the facility’s property.

It is those on-site hazard details that EPA wants to post on the Internet, ostensibly to provide more specific information to federal, state and local regulators, and to fire and police departments and other first-responders.

In announcing its plans to publically disclose the on-site security information and response plans, EPA said that post-9/11 restrictions on that data have led to “a bureaucratic burden on the agency” because it must respond to individual Freedom of Information Act requests for such site-specific information.

The information at issue initially was available to the public beginning in late 1999 when the risk management plan requirement first went into effect.

But in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, EPA “made a voluntary decision to remove all RMP data from the agency website”.

While smoke was still clearing from the New York and Washington attacks, policymakers became concerned that detailed information contained in risk management plans – including the possibility of thousands of offsite casualties among populations adjacent to chemical plants – could provide would-be terrorists a ready-to-use target list.

Armed with knowledge of what toxic chemicals each facility had on site and in what quantities, along with details about downwind population concentrations, a wannabe terrorist easily might identify a chemical plant target that, if successfully attacked, could produce the largest possible mass casualties.

EPA pulled the RMP data from its website shortly after 9/11. Since then, the information has been available only at federal reading rooms across the country and only for a specifically requested facility – no at-large state-wide or national shopping lists of potential targets. 

And, too, the site-specific data hav been subject to Freedom of Information Act requests – which EPA says have become burdensome.

Too bad, says Congressman Fred Upton (Republican-Michigan), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

In a recent letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Upton warned that the non-OCA data that the agency wants to make available on the Internet “contain facility-by-facility lists of covered chemicals used, preventive measures in place and the location in a plant where those chemicals are used”.

EPA claims that Internet access to the non-OCA data is needed to provide local first-responders with critical information they might need in an emergency. 

That claim is bogus, Upton said, noting that three other federal statutes already require that chemical facility operators provide all RMP data to local responders and response planners.

Although the non-OCA data in theory provide information about the consequences of a breach or other toxic leak only within a plant site, industry officials note that the non-OCA reports to EPA also include a summary of the full offsite consequence analysis – in other words, some details on likely downwind casualties.

Upton said that “With the growth of several internet search engine-based mapping tools, the information you propose to publish can constitute a virtual terrorist roadmap into a chemical facility, triggering devastating consequences”.

“This is why EPA decided to remove all Risk Management Plan data from the agency web site in the fall of 2001,” Upton said.

The question seems obvious: If in the aftermath of 9/11 public Internet access to the RMP data was considered a security risk and an open invitation to target US chemical facilities, does that risk no longer exist?

The only thing that has changed, it seems apparent from the EPA disclosure plan, is that the agency has grown weary of responding to Freedom of Information Act requests and wants to be free of that burden by simply disclosing the RMP data wholesale.

“We are shocked that EPA would seek to reverse hard-fought anti-terrorism gains made over the last decade by disregarding the compelling need to not globally disseminate this information,” Upton said.

“Terrorists already have enough weapons,” he said, adding: “We need not turn this highly sensitive information into one more weapon in their arsenal.”

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) said that it is extremely concerned about EPA’s proposal to post the data, which would include plans by facility operators on how they would respond to a breach or other release of hazardous chemicals on their plant sites.

The council said that EPA’s proposed release of “sensitive security information will undermine the efforts of our industry to protect our facilities, employees and communities”.

The Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA) also warned that EPA disclosure of the information could be dangerous.

“We believe that, in this case, security interests outweigh a public’s right to know about the information targeted for public disclosure via the Web,” SOCMA said, adding that its member firms already share such site-specific details with local first-responders as part of the group’s ChemStewards environmental and safety programme.

EPA said that it is reviewing Upton’s letter and would “respond as appropriate”.

Upton has asked for an EPA response by Friday of this week.

By: Joe Kamalick
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