Different Opinion on Chemical Security

by Guest Blogger, 9/16/2002

OMB Watch responded to a recent Washington Times Op-ed, entitled "Toxic road map for terrorists" with this letter to the editor.Angela Logomasini ("Toxic road map for terrorists," Op-Ed, 9/4/2002) advocates eliminating public access to risk management plans (RMPs) because it is possible the information could be misused. Perhaps she would agree with some in industry that propose government no longer collect RMPs since the information may fall into the wrong hands.

Many would consider these proposals as too extreme and likely to result in increased risk to the public’s health and well-being. After all RMPs provide information about chemical dangers in the community as a means to increase security and safety for citizens.

The principles of open government and the people’s right-to-know are cornerstones upon which our country has been built. We should not hastily sacrifice these freedoms in the name of protecting them. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court agreed with this point, recently ruling secret deportation hearings for those supposedly linked to terrorism unlawful. The court asserted that excessive secrecy compromised the very principles of free and open government that the fight against terror is meant to protect. The court declared that a blanket policy of secrecy is unconstitutional and that the government must be more targeted and precise in its approach.

We already have laws to restrict disclosure of information on national security, law enforcement investigations, or trade secrets. But the RMPs don’t fit into any of those categories. So Ms. Logomasini would prefer a blanket secrecy approach, simply trusting companies to “do the right thing” in protecting the workers and communities. This approach gave us Love Canal, Bhopal, acid rain, and thousands of hazardous waste sites across the country. And with recent corporate scandals like Enron, WorldCom, and Arthur Anderson, it seems incredibly naive to remove an important check to ensuring that companies adequately inform and protect communities.

The true solution is to remove or reduce threats to manageable levels. After the September 11th attacks the solution wasn’t to stop posting airline schedules or shut down air travel. New security measures were immediately implemented to reduce the risk of airplanes being used in another terrorist attack. While more is still needed to reduce risks during air travel, the same intelligent approach should be used to handle the risks we face from chemical plants.

Senator Corzine (D-NJ) has a bill, The Chemical Security Act (S.1602), which spurs chemical companies to reduce the risks they pose to workers and communities by requiring them to assess their vulnerabilities and evaluate methods to reduce their risks, such as use of inherently safer technologies and storing smaller quantities of toxic substances.
This approach also benefits communities and workers by reducing the consequences from the common industrial accidents that continue to occur everyday and represent an equally deadly threat. The responsible approach is not burying our heads in the sand and hoping that nothing goes wrong but using information to identify and minimize the vulnerabilities.

Sean Moulton
Senior Policy Analyst
OMB Watch