US to curb online chemical factory websites to offset disaster
National Mail 4th May 2000
Washington: Federal regulators plan to limit the amount of online information available on chemical disasters to keep terrorists and other criminals from accessing it. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Justice have jointly proposed removing from the Internet information on where chemical plants are located and what their procedures are in case of a major explosion or spill. Law enforcement officials believe there is a real risk that terrorists or other groups could use such detailed information for sabotage.
The move comes after Congress passed a law requiring the two government agencies to develop new rules. The regulations will not take effect until after public hearings. Balancing access and risk, the 1999 Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act requires the government to assess the benefits as well as the risks of posting such information on the Internet. The advantage of allowing public access is that it could reduce chemical risks; the risk is that terrorists and other criminals could use the information too.
Information to be taken offline includes plant locations and the population of surrounding "vulnerable zones", and the identity, release rate and duration of release of the chemicals used. However, that data would still be available in a number of federal "reading rooms" where the public would have read-only access. There also could be local reading rooms available in facilities such as firehouses or civil defense centers. Readers would have to sign in, identify the information they sought and could examine no more than 10 chemical plants monthly. Critics say crucial information is withheld. But some right-to-know advocates argue that the most crucial information is being taken offline, and they question the usefulness of reading rooms.
The EPA has been required to make information about hazardous chemical plants available for years. But officials say that the Internet has changed the risk of easy access. According to a Justice Department report released April 18, there is a real likelihood that a terrorist or criminal could use an industrial chemical as a weapon.
"Based upon our analysis of trends in international and domestic terrorism we have concluded that the risks of terrorists attempting in the foreseeable future to cause an industrial chemical release is both real and credible", the report said. The report goes on to say that having the data on the Internet gives terrorists and criminals "one-stop shopping" information for any of the 15,000 chemical plants in the United States.
Finding reading rooms Paul Orum, director of the Washington-based Working Group on Community Right-to-Know, doesn't buy that argument. He said the new regulations would restrict the public's right to know whether a toxic spill or chemical spill at a plant is harmful to the surrounding community. And the government watchdog group OMB Watch contends the reading room proposals leave a lot to be desired. "It is unclear how the public would identify the location of the nearest federal or local reading room", said Rick Blum, a spokesman for the group. Blum said the proposed rules also are unclear on whether those using the reading rooms would have to be able to identify plants by name or could seek information by geographical area or plant type.
The proposed rules also include a new "Internet Risk Indicator System" feature that would allow people to type in an address and learn about their area's vulnerability zone and the name of the local emergency planning agency. But they would not get the names or exact locations of plants. The regulations, which were published in the Federal Register, require a 45-day public comment period and must become final and implemented by early August according to the 1999 law.