Toxic info to stay off Web

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

pages.

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

the Internet.

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.

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