Rule: Keep chemical spill info off Web

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"Access denied"

Fearing that the global reach of the Internet will prove too helpful to

terrorists, the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency

have issued a final rule for keeping information about potentially deadly

chemical spills at U.S. industrial plants off government Web pages.

However, in an effort to inform the public about chemical risks, the

agencies propose creating a Web-based "risk indicator system" that would

tell people whether their homes, schools or workplaces are in a "vulnerable

zone" for a chemical spill.

The EPA also proposes making "less-sensitive" chemical plant information

available on a World Wide Web site "to facilitate risk reduction dialogues"

involving the public, plant operators and local officials.

Those two steps represent at least a partial effort to accomplish what

the EPA set out to do in the mid 1990s by posting "risk management plans"

on the Internet. The intent was to keep the American public informed about

chemical dangers in their communities.

Detailed risk management plans the EPA has collected from more than

15,000 companies will be banned from EPA Web sites. Instead, the plans will

be made available to the public only in closely monitored government reading

rooms.

Justice and EPA propose creating 50 or more reading rooms where risk

management plans could be studied by members of the public. To see the plans,

visitors would have to present a photo identification card, such as a driver's

license or passport.

Reading room visitors would be allowed to examine only 10 risk management

plans a month, and they would be given only limited access to plans outside

the area where they work or live. Photocopying would be prohibited.

In comments to the Justice Department, critics of the new rule noted

that the danger of chemical spills is "very real" while threats of terrorist

attacks on industrial plants are "greatly exaggerated fears of the unknown,"

one critic wrote. But Justice said that "two recent plots to cause chemical

releases were thwarted by law enforcement."

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