WASHINGTON — The federal government proposed April 27 to limit the amount of chemical-accident data it will put on the Internet, a move applauded by the chemical industry. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice jointly released the proposal, saying it was a way to balance the public's right to know about risks from chemicals in manufacturing plants with concerns that terrorists could use the Internet to easily find factories to blow up.
The Chemical Manufacturers Association said it supports the new proposal. CMA spokesman Jeff Van said the Arlington, Va.-based trade group will encourage its members to work with local fire departments and emergency planning agencies to set up reading rooms where the public can view the plans.
Van said CMA has said throughout the debate it would defer to anti-terrorism experts.
The EPA-DOJ plan, however, was criticized by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, R-N.J., who said the proposal would severely limit public access called for in the Clean Air Act.
"As a senator from a state with a huge number of chemical plants, I find it troubling that the administration has decided not to provide communities access to important information on the hazards of chemical plants," Lautenberg said in a statement.
Initially, EPA wanted to take chemical-accident plans from roughly 15,000 manufacturing plants across the country and put them on the Internet, but federal law enforcement agencies said terrorists would use that to find the best targets.
Congress, as a result, passed a law last summer requiring the federal government to give security concerns more consideration.
Lautenberg and Baucus criticized EPA for not following its own advice — that if it made chemical-accident data available, companies would work to reduce accidents. The EPA-DOJ plan said the facilities covered by the rule reported 1,900 serious accidents, causing 33 deaths, 8,300 injuries and the evacuation of 221,000 people, from 1994-99.
But the proposal also said that domestic terrorist groups have been caught twice in the last two years "plotting to cause industrial chemical releases for terroristic purposes at U.S. facilities."
The proposal calls for some information to still be posted on the Internet, and said complete information would be available in at least 50 reading rooms around the country. The proposal also allows local governments to set up reading rooms.