Toxic info to stay off Web
- By William Matthews
- Aug 14, 2000
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 World Wide Web
However, in an effort to inform the public of chemical risks, the agencies
propose creating a World Wide Web-based "risk indicator system" that would
tell people if 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 the Web "to facilitate risk reduction dialogues" with 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.
"The problem is, of course, they still do not tell citizens why they
are at risk," said Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy
and Technology in Washington, D.C.
The decision to pull detailed chemical risk information from federal
Web sites has helped fuel a debate about freedom of speech, open government
and the public's right to know, and privacy and security.
Some argue that the worldwide reach of the Internet makes it dangerous
to post information on Web sites even when it is considered safe to publish
the same information on paper.
But others say muzzling the Internet violates the government's obligation
to inform the public. The debate may be taken up in Congress, where Sen.
Frank Lautenberg and Rep. Rush Holt, both New Jersey Democrats, have introduced
legislation that would require tighter security at plants that use hazardous
chemicals and that would permit chemical spill information to return to
On Aug. 9, Holt and Lautenberg decried the "virtual blackout of information
to millions of workers and citizens who work and live near chemical plants."
For now, though, the detailed "risk-management plans" that the EPA has
collected from more than 15,000 companies are banned from EPA Web sites.
Instead, the plans will be made available to the public only in closely
monitored federal reading rooms on a limited basis.