- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2002

When Congress returns to consider legislation creating a Department of Homeland Security, it will have the opportunity to address government programs that contribute to security risks. In particular, Congress could close a security breach created under a federal "right-to-know" law, which makes sensitive information about the nation's industrial plants widely available.

A bill recently offered by Sen. Christopher Bond, the Community Protection from Chemical Terrorism Act (S. 2579), takes a step in the right direction. Mr. Bond's proposal recognizes the danger of releasing this sensitive information and the need for controlling its distribution to protect public safety. However, it needs some critical improvements to adequately address this problem.

The bill would reform a provision of the Clean Air Act that requires certain industrial facilities ranging from chemical plants to water utilities and military installations that use chemicals to develop risk management plans (RMPs). RMPs are supposed to help facilities prepare for accidental chemical releases, but the law also directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make these plans publicly available.

These RMPs identify chemicals at plants, the quantities of such, the potentially exposed population should there be a catastrophic release, whether schools, day-care centers, and other receptors are located nearby, and related information.

The FBI and others have noted that this type of information could help terrorists plan attacks on industrial plants, placing thousands of Americans at risk. In fact, RMPs provide six out of nine pieces of information that the Department of Defense (DOD) lists as critical in launching a successful terrorist attack on an industrial facility.

Congress attempted to fix the problem with a new law in 1999, but it still allowed the EPA to post the bulk of the information online and make all of it available in federal libraries. After September 11, EPA pulled all RMP data off its Internet site. However, "citizen" and environmental activists had already downloaded detailed executive summaries from EPA's site, which these groups host online today.

Mr. Bond's proposal appears to be a sincere effort to help fix the problem but it doesn't go far enough. The bill would allow continued public viewing of RMPs at federal libraries minus the names, addresses, and other information that identifies facilities. Yet this approach raises more questions than it answers and is likely to be insufficient to solve the problem.

Allowing public viewing of plans that lack plant-identifying information begs numerous questions. How will people specify what plans they want to view? If they simply review random plans, what purpose would that serve?

Even if this bill became law, terrorists might still be able to figure out ways to request RMPs for specific plants. For example, if they select plans based on geographic criteria, they may be able to easily target which specific plans they view. In addition, they can use the executive summaries hosted on the Internet by self-designated "citizen" groups to develop criteria for viewing plans. These summaries alone are dangerous enough. But used as a resource to select plans for viewing at libraries, they could prove deadly.

The bill does include a ban against copying and note-taking at libraries, which would play an important role in mitigating these concerns. But this provision does not eliminate serious risks. For example, after taking a trip to one federal library, journalist Michael Fumento pointed out that it would not be difficult to take photos of a RMP with a miniature-sized camera. While the average citizen is not likely to take that risk, terrorists are willing to take extraordinary risks.

Finally, S. 2579 includes a provision that would make it mandatory that all local emergency planning committees include representatives from national environmental groups. Federal law does not bar anyone from participating on committees now, and it already explicitly states that committees must include representatives from local environmental groups. No other national organization has the right to serve on local committees. Why grant this special privilege to national environmental groups whose representatives probably won't even live in the area of concern?

This entitlement for national environmental groups could inadvertently shift the security and emergency planning focus of these committees toward the national environmental groups' political agenda. Particularly in these times, it does not make sense to pursue a policy that will simply embroil emergency planning committees in the political agenda of organizations outside their own communities and interests.

So what's the solution? Congress can't do much about private groups hosting the summaries online. But it can at least stop aiding and abetting the enemy by taking a decisive step and removing the RMPs from federal libraries.

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

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