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Rule would block environmental hazard information

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         Apr 28, 2000    

Rule would block environmental hazard information

  • The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed rules that would sharply limit release of details of chemical accident risks in communities.

The general public will not be able to learn many of the details of serious risks to communities posed by manufacturers’ use of hazardous chemicals because of the possibility that terrorists might use that same information, under rules proposed April 27 by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The rules implement a law enacted in August which was designed to calm fears raised by industry and law enforcement agencies that if the public could learn about vulnerabilities to chemical accidents, terrorists could also learn about those vulnerabilities.

The Clean Air Act of 1990 required that information about risks to communities from manufacturer’s use of hazardous chemicals be made available to the public, but several lawmakers pointed out that that Act predated widespread use of the Internet. The Internet would make the information far more publicly accessible than could have been contemplated a decade ago.

The proposed rules allow the public to view, but not necessarily photocopy, information collected about “offsite consequence analyses” in 50 federal reading rooms around the country which would be accessible upon presentation of identification. Anonymous research would not be possible.

The rules would also allow, but not require, local fire departments, local Emergency Planning Committees and State Emergency Response Commissions to also establish local reading rooms.

Internet users would be able to enter a street address and learn if the address could be affected by a “worst-case” chemical accident but they could not learn from the Internet what company at what location posed the risk.

A public hearing on the proposals is scheduled for May 9 and public comments are due June 8.

EPA jointly issued the rules with the Department of Justice.

The environmental agency was required by legislation signed into law in August to study the benefits of disclosing hazardous “worst-case” scenarios to the public along with the potential for terrorist activity that might follow if the public could learn about hazardous sites.

Under the Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act, manufacturers’ analyses of industrial risks to the environment, required to be conducted and reported by the Clean Air Act, would not be available to the public because they would be exempt under the Freedom of Information Act for one year. If the EPA adopts regulations curtailing access to information during that year, the exemption continues.

The law subjects government employees to criminal penalties for releasing the information.

(Proposed rule on accidental release prevention requirements; risk management programs; distribution of off-site consequence analysis information, Federal Register, April 27)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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