Senate passes bill to restrict access to chemical database

The Senate this week unanimously passed a compromise version of a bill that would restrict public access to information, especially data in electronic form, about the risks of chemical accidents.

The measure, an amendment to the 1990 Clean Air Act, would prohibit for one year disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act of any information that describes what could happen if toxic chemicals were accidentally released into the environment. The information is contained in reports that the Environmental Protection Agency requires some manufacturers that use toxic chemicals to submit, outlining the consequences of an explosion or other disaster. The EPA is keeping the information in an electronic database, and federal law enforcement officials fear that opening this database to the public would provide terrorists with too much information about potential targets.

During the one-year moratorium on FOIA requests, the Clinton administration would study whether the benefits of disclosing the information to the public outweigh the risks of terrorist attacks on U.S. industrial sites. The administration plans to write regulations based on its findings.

Until the final regulations are issued, the public would not be allowed to have information about specific manufacturing plants, according to the bill. Afterward, individuals could get paper copies of reports about a limited number of sites. The bill also requires the EPA to create a publicly accessible database from which data could be viewed but not copied.

New provisions of the bill (S. 880) approved last week attempt to address objections to an earlier version from state and local government officials who wanted input into the disclosure rules and from environmentalists who argued that the administration had not proven that disclosure posed security risks.

Nevertheless, Tom Natan, research director with the National Environmental Trust, said the bill would make it harder for environmentalists to pressure companies to make their plants less dangerous. Without an electronic database, he said, it will be harder to identify the worst hazards and the companies that do the best job of minimizing potential harm. "If all the information were out there and easily accessible, there would be some public pressure to do hazard reduction," he said.

According to Jody Westby, general manager with In-Q-It, an information technology research firm that works with federal intelligence agencies, the measure is "a step in the right direction." But she said it is still unlikely to keep the most sensitive information off the Internet because paper copies of documents could be scanned and put online, while information from a database could not be completely protected from copying.

The House has yet to act on its version of the bill (H.R. 1790), which is being considered by the House Commerce Committee, but sources familiar with the debate expect it will pass eventually.

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