- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2001

Events in recent days serve as a horrible wake-up call. Americans need to re-evaluate and upgrade our security systems. In the months ahead, policy-makers, media pundits and others will likely debate how best to address security issues, and they are likely to find few easy answers.
While it may not be clear as to what exact measures officials should pursue, it is clear what we should not do - allow our own public policies to assist terrorists inadvertently. In light of that reality, policy-makers should re-evaluate a "right-to-know" law that makes sensitive information publicly available.
At issue is a provision of the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act requiring that thousands of industrial facilities develop risk management plans (RMPs) and submit them to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These plans are supposed to help plants prepare for accidental chemical releases. One section of the RMP includes "off-site consequence analyses" (OCA). The OCA documents the potential impacts of a catastrophic accidental chemical release assuming the "worst case scenario." The OCA includes the number of potential fatalities that an accidental release could cause to the surrounding community. The law then demands that EPA make this information available to the public, under the assumption that citizens have a "right to know" about the risks of chemical facilities. Facilities were required to provide the information to the EPA by June 2000.
Back in 1999, the agency indicated that it would post this information on the Internet. But security experts - the FBI, CIA, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and various other groups - raised alarm.They feared that such Internet posting would give terrorists easy access to an anonymous, searchable database of potential targets with fatality figures. When the EPA backed away from Internet posting, "public interest" groups said that they would access the information under the Freedom of Information Act and post it online themselves. Congress responded with legislation requesting that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the EPA issue a rule governing the process for releasing the data to minimize security risks. Unfortunately, the agencies promulgated a rule that makes the information readily available. It did not even prohibit outside groups from posting it on the Internet.
The rule makes the information available in at least 50 "reading rooms" throughout the nation. The EPA and DOJ say this approach makes it difficult to collect and post the information online.
Greenpeace has already begun collecting information and using it in studies to scare the public about "risks" from corporate America. The first few reading rooms opened in January 2001 and, by March, Greenpeace had already compiled data from 50 plants in Louisiana, which it used to produce a study.
If Greenpeace can collect this data, why should anyone think that a terrorist organization - or someone interested in selling the information thereto - would not do the same? The most "difficult" part of the "security measures" is the requirement for an identification card. And as any teen-ager can tell you, phony IDs are not difficult to assemble. Given the potential risk, the federal government should shut down these sites and information on the EPA web page immediately. The government should then re-evaluate whether it makes sense to ever make this information public again.
The irony is that supporters of providing this information claim that it will educate the public about risks and encourage them to seek policies that reduce them. But most people can't make heads or tails out of all this technical information. Nor is this information very telling about the most probable risk. The information is only useful to groups that seek to scare the public about chemical risks, or those who might use it for selecting targets.
More constructive information comes from local exchanges between facilities and community organizations and emergency planners. Through this process, facilities hear concerns from the community and engage in information exchange via public meetings, plant tours, and the like. From this voluntary information exchange, communities learn not only what the likely risks are but how to respond in an emergency.
Our age of innocence is over, and now we realize that even seemingly small oversights can have profound implications. With our new frame of reference, we need to re-examine our own public policies to assure we don't inadvertently assist our foes.

Angela Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide