Benefits of Chemical Information Should not be Forgotten
by Guest Blogger, 2/22/2002
Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, EPA moved quickly to restrict public access to data on chemical facilities, fearing that it could be used by terrorists to zero in on a potential target. The agency is currently evaluating whether to repost this information to its web site, and according to EPA officials, is nearing a decision on the matter. Contained in “Risk Management Plans” filed by each facility that uses or stores extremely hazardous chemicals, the information removed from EPA’s web site includes measures taken by a facility to prevent an accidental release and response plans to protect human health and the environment in the event of a release. Also included in each plan is an evaluation of the potential effects of an accidental release, including worst-case scenario information. However, Congress decided to restrict access to this information, making it available only in 50 “reading rooms” around the country; it has never been available on the web, even before Sept. 11. For many, there is nothing for EPA to consider; the information should stay off limits. “The quicker a decision is made” to keep the “web site permanently shuttered, the better,” Amy E. Smithson, director of the chemical and biological nonproliferation project at the Henry L. Stimson Center, told the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment at a hearing on the matter Nov. 8, 2001. Instead, we should look to the sky for answers. “If an intentional or accidental disaster occurred at a chemical plant, small animals, such as birds, would be the first to be affected,” she said. “Put another way, if birds are dropping from the sky … people in the area should get inside as quickly as possible, shut the doors, and turn off all ventilation systems.” Industry groups have also thrown their weight behind restricting the information. An analysis circulated on the Hill by the American Water Works Association shortly after Sept. 11 called for the closing of all reading rooms with RMP data. The American Chemistry Council echoed this sentiment in a letter to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, adding, “These actions would be consistent with the actions of other agencies and your action to temporarily withdraw access to the Risk Management Plan database.” Others strike a more moderate tone, recognizing the value of the information, while expressing reservations about making it widely available. Also at the Nov. 8 hearing, Rep. Stephen Horn (R-CA) suggested that residents be given access to information about facilities in their community at Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs). We shouldn't make the terrorist's job any easier, Horn explained, by posting it to the web for all to see. Certainly, this concern should not be discounted. The threat of terrorism has moved to the forefront, and we need to take appropriate steps to protect ourselves (including reduction of chemical hazards themselves). Yet in making decisions to withhold information, we should not lose sight of why it was made widely available in the first place. In the case of chemical facilities, the push for greater accountability began back in 1984, when a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, released 40 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a highly toxic chemical that became heavier than air and moved close to the ground away from the plant and into the community. More than 500,000 people were exposed to the lethal gas, killing over 2,000 and injuring over 300,000, many of which suffer long-term effects to this day. Whether or not Union Carbide's claims of employee sabotage are true, there were still at least five major safety systems that were either inadequately designed or failed at least partially at the time of the accident, as U.S. PIRG details in Accidents Waiting to Happen. After Bhopal, Americans began wondering whether such an accident could happen here - and the answer demanded action. A study commissioned by EPA in 1990 found that since 1980 there were at least 15 accidents in the United States that exceeded Bhopal in volume and toxicity of chemicals released, as pointed out by U.S. PIRG in Too Close to Home. Only circumstances such as wind conditions, containment measures, and rapid evacuations prevented disastrous consequences from taking place. A year after the accident at Bhopal, a similar Union Carbide facility in Institute, West Virginia, released more than two tons of toxic chemicals, sending 135 people to the hospital with eye, throat, and lung irritation (as noted by the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment). Concerns over a more deadly accident led Congress, in 1986, to enact the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), which requires, among other things, that industrial facilities report on the types and quantities of toxic chemicals they release annually into the land, air, and water. This information is then entered in the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a national, publicly accessible electronic data bank. (TRI data is available through RTK NET, run by OMB Watch, Environmental Defense's Scorecard, and the EPA's web site.) The availability of this information has provided the necessary incentives to make real improvements in public health and safety, exactly as intended. Empowered by TRI information, community organizations and environmental groups, as well as the press and everyday citizens, were able to expose toxic dangers in their communities, and demand action. In the 11 years since facilities began reporting under TRI, toxic releases have declined by nearly 50 percent, in large measure due to public pressure, resulting from an increased awareness of toxic dangers. This "shame effect" is something to keep in mind as EPA considers whether to continue to withhold information on potential chemical accidents. In 1990, Congress sought to build on the successes of the TRI program when it amended the Clean Air Act to give EPA oversight of risk management planning at facilities that handle extremely hazardous chemicals. More specifically, as mentioned above, chemical facilities are required to submit to EPA annual Risk Management Plans that summarize the potential threats of chemical releases, and detail plans to prevent releases and mitigate any damage should an accident occur. EPA is then to make this information, minus the evaluation of the effects of a chemical accident, available to the public. This is where the current controversy lies. What makes this controversy so baffling is that Congress and the FBI thoroughly scrubbed the information back in 1999, evaluating whether broad disclosure might be useful to terrorists. As a result of that evaluation - which was prompted by an aggressive lobbying effort by the chemical industry - Congress decided to limit public access to information on worst-case scenarios - that is, information on the number of people that would be killed or injured in the event of a catastrophic accident. Instead of making it available on the web, as pointed out earlier, EPA allowed the public - and still allows the public - to view the worst-case scenario information at 50 reading rooms around the country, which are subject to extremely restrictive rules (for instance, individuals are able to view no more than ten records each month and can only take notes, but not make copies of the data). The remaining information in the RMPs, the FBI determined, presented no unique, increased risk of terrorism. Nonetheless, this is the very information EPA removed from its web site. There has been almost no stated justification for this decision (other than in the most general sense), which makes it all the more frustrating. Most of the information seems benign on its face. For instance, as part of the RMPs, facilities are required to report their five-year accident histories. What good would this do a terrorist? Does a terrorist really need to know about a facility's plans to improve safety or respond to an accident? Even for the more controversial off-site consequence analysis (that includes worst-case scenario data) - which remember, has never been available on the web - how is a terrorist uniquely advantaged? It's hardly difficult to find chemical facilities located near large populations. This sort of information pales in comparison to other widely-available resources. For instance, an advertisement that appeared in Plastics News - an industry trade publication - on Nov. 5, 2001, gives a large aerial view of a chemical plant in Point Comfort, Texas, labeling exactly where each specific chemical is stored on site. The ad, from Formosa Plastics Corp., USA, boasts, "Today, we bring you one of the world's newest and largest assemplages of petrochemical plants in a single location." Or see this clickable map from J-M Manufacturing, which gives site locations and major products involving chemicals. After all, it was chemical industry trade publications - not Risk Management Plans - that the Washington Post reported (Dec. 16) were found in a hideout of Osama Bin Laden. While the usefulness of RMP information to terrorists is murky or perhaps nonexistent, the usefulness to the public is crystal clear. With this information, the public is able to hold facilities accountable to make upgrades and improve safety in their communities. RMP information has only been disclosed for a couple of years (EPA did not promulgate an implementing regulation until 1996), so its potential has yet to be realized. However, the TRI experience provides an example of how it might work. First, intermediary groups - such as community or environmental organizations, as well as the press - cull through the information. Then the information is disseminated in a way that is widely understandable. For instance, the availability of the TRI data made it easy for these groups to put together lists of facilities responsible for the most toxic pollution. See this list of Pennsylvania's biggest polluters from the Pennsylvania Department of the Environment as an example. Such lists brought a great deal of publicity and attention, especially from residents around the facilities, and facilities began to respond to the pressure by reducing their toxic releases. As stated earlier, releases have declined nearly 50 percent in the time of the TRI program. If Horn's idea to make the RMP information available only locally - and only on facilities in a given community - were to prevail, the comparative value of the data would be lost, which is what makes it especially powerful. After all, chemical-plant hazards are clearly a widespread national problem, which necessitates priority setting by government authorities. This sort of priority setting is helped along by public pressure - frequently spurred by access to information - which is needed now more than ever as EPA has failed to take any concrete action to address actual chemical hazards since Sept. 11. Although new, some have started to use the RMP data to call attention to this problem. Organizations, such as Greenpeace and U.S. PIRG, have already used RMP information to highlight problems at specific facilities. For example, exposure of RMP data led to hazard-reduction measures at the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant (discussed here), whose vulnerability zone included the White House, Congress, and Bolling Air Force Base. More recently, the Washington Post ran an extensive front-page story on Dec. 16, which relied on RMP data, including worst-case scenario estimates. Although Congress restricted this information, as described above, many facilities neglected to remove reference to the worst-case scenario estimates in the 1999 executive summaries of their plans. OMB Watch, believing the public has a right to know the dangers we live with, posted these executive summaries to our Right-to-Know Network (RTK NET). Using this information, the Post described a number of frightening possibilities that deserve immediate attention. For instance, "a suburban California chemical plant routinely loads chlorine into 90-ton rail cars that, if ruptured, could poison more than 4 million people in Orange and Los Angeles counties"; "a Philadelphia refinery keeps 400,000 pounds of hydrogen fluoride that could asphyxiate nearly 4 million nearby residents"; and "a South Kearny, N.J., chemical company's 180,000 pounds of chlorine or sulfur dioxide could form a cloud that could threaten 12 million people." Some continue to argue that the mere reporting of such information is gravely dangerous. Yet ignoring it would be even more so. The idea of only providing the information locally to local residents, presented as a sensible compromise, is no compromise at all. By necessity such a public problem, national in scope, must be discussed in public in order to find solutions. Community members can't be expected to look at information, find a major problem, and then keep it to themselves. Putting the clamps on the information, as EPA is currently choosing to do, stifles dialogue and removes the necessary incentives that might lead to real improvements. After all, removing the information does not remove the actual problem - chemical hazards. More likely, it will invite complacency and a false sense of security. At this point in time, that's exactly what we don't need.