Senate OKs bill to restrict public access to chemical-risk info

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

The measure, an amendment to the 1990 Clean Air Act, would prohibit for one year the disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act of any information that describes what could happen if toxic chemicals were accidentally released into the environment. Meanwhile, the Clinton administration would study whether the benefits of disclosure outweigh the risk that disclosure could lead to terrorist attacks on U.S. industrial sites, and it would write regulations based on its findings.

The information is contained in reports that the Environmental Protection Agency requires some companies that use toxic chemicals to submit. The reports outline 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, such as making it accessible over the Internet, would give terrorists too much information about potential targets in the United States.

According to the bill, until final regulations are issued, the public would not be allowed to obtain information about specific manufacturing plants. 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 the public could view data but not print or copy it.

Rick Blum, a policy analyst with OMB Watch, a government watchdog group, said the bill "creates a dangerous precedent" for public access to federal data by establishing a "new category" of information that is neither public nor classified. He said the measure contradicts an existing law that says the government cannot put restrictions on the public's ability to redistribute published government data.

New provisions of the bill [S.880] approved last month attempt to address objections to an earlier version of the bill. Those objections came from state and local government officials who wanted input into the disclosure rules and from environmentalists who argued that the Clinton administration had not proven that disclosing the information 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 Westby said the bill still is unlikely to keep the most sensitive information off the Internet because paper copies of documents could be scanned and put online, and 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 the bill to pass eventually.

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