Seeing Community Right-To-Know Laws in a New Light

The tragic events of September 11 have changed Americans' perspectives about many things. As a result of the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, we are now acutely aware of the need to carefully handle sensitive data that could be accessed by those who would use such information to carry out additional violent acts against our nation.

As we deal with the aftermath of these attacks, however, we must not forget another past tragedy with large numbers of casualties. In 1984, the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, had an accidental release of the toxic chemical, methyl isocyanate, causing the deaths of more than 2,000 people and adverse health effects in more than 170,000 survivors. Most of the victims were residents who lived near the facility and had little knowledge about the potential dangers associated with the hazardous chemicals stored at the plant.

The Bhopal catastrophe became the impetus for the passage of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act (EPCRA). Enacted in 1986, EPCRA requires industrial facilities to disclose information about their chemicals stored on-site.

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 develop plans for preventing such disasters. These covered facilities are required to submit the RMP information to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Much of this information is available in reading rooms located at EPA offices throughout the United States. In general, these reading rooms are open to the public, but viewers must present identification in order to access these documents.

Amendments to the Clean Air Act enacted in 1999 required the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to complete by August 4, 2000, an interim report on the vulnerability of chemical plants to terrorist attacks, and complete a final report in 2002. The DOJ report was mandated in a 1999 law, the Chemical Safety, Site Security and Fuels Relief Act. Yet, Congress never appropriated any funding to DOJ to prepare these reports. Later, however, Congress did allocate funding for DOJ to develop a vulnerability assessment methodology, which at press time DOJ is scheduled to release in November or December 2001. For more information, check out www.usdoj.gov.

On November 1, 2001, the American Chemistry Council (www.americanchemistry.com), formerly known as the Chemical Manufacturers Association, issued a statement on the public's right to know in which it advocated that the U.S. government, businesses and activist groups revisit, evaluate and temporarily revise their policies on the availability of some industry data and analytical tools on the Internet and in public reading rooms. ACC, the main lobbying organization for U.S. chemical companies, further stated that it "supports temporary action to limit access to select information as one means of possibly preventing further loss of life due to a terrorist attack."

Some critics complain that the current right-to-know laws make sensitive information about dangerous chemicals easily available to terrorists. For example, Angela Logomasini, conservative commentator and director of Risk and Environmental Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (www.cei.org) , expressed the following view in a column published on October 12 in the New York Post, "Supporters of providing this information claim that it will educate the public about risks and encourage them to seek policies to reduce them. But most people can't make heads or tails out of all this technical information? Making data public is only useful to groups that seek to scare the public about chemical risks or those who might use it for selecting targets."

The key question is how do we stop future terrorist attacks against U.S. industrial facilities while at the same time preventing another Bhopal? The problem centers on trying to balance the public's right to information with the need to promote public safety and the protection of U.S. businesses. We must be careful about limiting public access to information that serves the legitimate function of informing citizens about chemical hazards in their communities. The more that citizens know about such hazards near their homes, schools and workplaces the better prepared they can be to handle the dangers associated with accidental chemical releases.

To overcome the recent unparalleled attack on the United States, we need to strengthen our security, while as the same time fortifying the freedoms that have made our nation great. We must not let a false choice be made between our security and the freedoms that we enjoy as American citizens. Benjamin Franklin, early American patriot and one of the leaders of the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention, summed it up best: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."




This article originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 12, p. 8.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.

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