Feds Oppose Net Access to Chemical Disaster Info

WASHINGTON (07/10/2000) - The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is poised to release a set of regulations meant to keep worst-case chemical disaster information off the Internet, where it would be easily accessible to terrorists. But a draft proposal is drawing mostly skepticism from all sides, with the consensus that it's impossible to keep public information off the Internet.

Chemical companies are required by law to provide the EPA with reports detailing what would happen in the event of a "worst-case" chemical release or explosion, like the 1984 Bhopal, India, chemical disaster that killed more than 2,000 people. But in response to warnings by the U.S. Department of Justice that the information - if posted on the Internet - could provide "one-stop shopping" for terrorists, Congress passed a law last year barring the electronic distribution of the data.

A Matter of Time

As a result of that law, the EPA has drafted a proposal that would require the creation of 50 reading rooms across the U.S. where the public can view chemical and disaster information on thousands of companies. Users would have to show personal identification to view the data and would be limited to accessing information about 10 chemical facilities a month. Moreover, users wouldn't be able to reproduce any of the material but could take notes. The EPA is expected to release its final regulations on Aug. 5, an agency official said.

But Donna Duessel, corporate environmental manager at R. T. Vanderbilt Co., a specialty chemical maker in Norwalk, Conn., said she believes that limiting access only increases amount of time it will take for the data to turn up on the Internet. "Maybe this is just my cynicism or skepticism, but the data will be out there," said Duessel, who said she believes availability of the information should be limited to the local community surrounding a given chemical facility.

In a letter to the EPA, Eastman Chemical Co. said the proposed rule doesn't go far enough. The Kingsport, Tenn., company wants user access limited to 10 facilities per year rather than 10 per month.

Environmental and right-to-know groups have also faulted the plan.

"It severely limits the public's freedom to communicate about the dangerous practices in the chemical industry," said Paul Orum, director of the Working Group on Community Right-to-Know in Washington. The regulations, however, won't stop dissemination of the data, Orum said. "The information will get out, slowly, in a disorganized way," he said.

Industry trade groups are worried not only about security issues but about the use of public data to gain competitive intelligence. "I think that those conducting competitive espionage will use every means available to them, and this would be yet another data point available to them. So yes, it would have a competitive impact," said Michael Walls, senior counsel at the American Chemistry Council Inc. in Arlington, Va. However, he said he believes the regulation will "substantially deter" release of the data on the Internet.

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