Community right-to-know: Public access or excess?

Thousands of men, women and children smothered by a toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate. This ultimate worst-case scenario occurred in 1984 when the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, had an accidental release of this chemical, causing the deaths of more than 2,000 people and adverse health effects in over 170,000 survivors. Most of the victims were residents who lived near the facility.

The Bhopal nightmare galvanized U.S. citizens' groups working for greater protection of the public from chemical emergencies. Their goal was the passage of a law requiring industrial facilities to disclose their chemicals stored on-site. Finally, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act (EPCRA) was enacted in 1986.

In the same spirit as EPCRA, Section 112 (r) of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments promotes public disclosure of information about facilities' on-site chemicals through risk management plans (RMPs). The law requires chemical manufacturers and other facilities that produce, store or handle amounts of more than 130 chemicals above certain threshold quantities to lay out worst-case scenarios for possible accidents and to develop plans for preventing them. These covered facilities were required to submit the RMP information to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by June 21.

Initially, EPA constructed an Internet site as a repository for the RMPs. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other groups, however, were concerned about the possible risks posed by terrorists gaining access to such information. EPA subsequently decided against posting the plans on the Web.

This summer, several bills were introduced in Congress to deal with the problem of what many perceive as the excessive availability of facilities' RMP information. The Senate and the House unanimously passed a bill (S. 880) that would limit public access to this information. Supported by the Clinton administration, the bill contains provisions that would suspend for one year the application of the Freedom of Information Act to RMPs containing the worst case scenarios for chemical accidents.

The bill's critics argue that if the bill becomes law it would unreasonably restrict the public's access to potential chemical hazards in their communities and only give emergency response personnel access to the data. They also stress that it ignores the need to improve security at facilities that store hazardous chemicals.

At press time, S. 880 has been presented to the president; he has not yet taken any action. For more information about S. 880, contact Steve Bentfield at U.S. Senator's John Chafee's office (202-224-6168) or visit www.senate.gov for a summary of the bill and its current status.

The controversy surrounding this bill centers on trying to balance the public's right-to-know with public safety and business concerns. How do we prevent another Bhopal while at the same time preventing terrorist attacks against U.S. industrial facilities? Undoubtedly, this debate will continue as citizens, industry and government attempt to reach a consensus on the best way to handle sensitive data in this new era of instant, global dissemination of information.

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This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1999 issue of Environmental Protection.

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