Regulators, industry try to seal disaster plans
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Source: Pittsburgh Live
Lax security exposes lethal chemical supplies.
Toxins often vulnerable during transit.
Bill would help neighbors breathe easier.
Regulators, industry try to seal disaster plans
By Carl Prine
Sunday, April 7, 2002
In the days after Sept. 11, local, state and federal regulators unable to quickly shore up security at America's chemical plants decided to quit telling the public about the dangers they face.
Lobbied strongly by the chemical industry to withhold public documents showing where lethal levels of chemicals are stored, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took hundreds of pages offline, including plans that detail a plant's chemical hazards to neighbors.
A December circular issued by the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency warned local agencies to consider denying what had always been public information: documents showing the dangers of living near a chemical plant, evacuation routes, the type and volume of toxins in nearby plants — everything in what's called "written offsite emergency response plans." Its effect on county emergency management agencies was chilling.
When the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tried to look at the plans in beginning in January, only Fayette County's Local Emergency Planning Committee — a quasi-governmental mix of rescue workers, industry representatives and community groups — agreed to share what's long been regarded as a public document protected by Pennsylvania's Open Records Law.
"Well, we thought about it, and we decided we're in the business of sharing information," said Roy Shipley Jr., Fayette County's emergency management director. "That's why we're here, right?"
Allegheny County officials said they would release the documents, but by the time they vetted a request from the Trib, the newspaper had already obtained the data from the EPA. Although Westmoreland and Butler County officials stalled for more than a month, they relented when told most of the information had already been provided by federal agencies.
Beaver County never provided the information. Neither did state officials. In the end, it proved easier to drive four hours to Washington, D.C., spend two days in an EPA reading room and obtain everything from federal regulators than face endless delays at county agencies.
"There's a move afoot by some in the chemical industry to close those reading rooms, so you won't be able to get the information at all," said Paul Orum, director of Community Right to Know, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates public access to government documents. "There's still strenuous opposition in the chemical industry to reduce chemical hazards. It's all reactive thinking, not proactive thinking. It's all about how we cover up the problems rather than reducing the hazards."
To keep information about Pennsylvania's chemical hazards available to everyone, a coalition of community groups is posting summary letters from local plans online at www.rtknet.org. The chemical industry doesn't like the idea, but it can't control what private groups do.
Although Pam Witmer, president of the Pennsylvania Chemical Industry Council, believes families have a duty to find out about plants before buying a house nearby, she opposes public access to documents showing how dangerous plants would be if attacked. She said families should seek that information from the plant's "community action group" or public relations office, if they exist.
"You don't have that control over who might be looking at it," she said. "The terrorists have become very adept at integrating themselves into a community. If you don't have to take that chance, from a real security perspective, should we?"
Her opinions have received support from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency's director, who calls efforts to remove chemical site records "sanitizing the information chain."
"I firmly believe that your local emergency planning committees, your emergency planners, your fire department, your hazmat (hazardous material) teams, your police and local officials should readily have that," said PEMA Director David Smith. "But there has to be a post-9/11 lesson learned here."
Terrorism experts scoff when told the government can fight terrorism by withholding information from the public. The al-Qaida killers, they point out, never filed a request for public documents before hijacking four jetliners. They say foreign and domestic terrorists and disgruntled employees will do what they always do — carefully case out a mix of plants, noting vulnerabilities, before they strike. Much of the information they need is already available in industry publications and from the companies.
"Refusing to talk about the threat doesn't mean the threat is diminished," said Timothy Ballard, a researcher at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. Ballard has written about the Aum Shinrikyo cult's 1995 sarin nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
"The terrorists have thought about those things. They're not going to get new ideas from journalists or academics bringing this up. In fact, it's only a good thing to talk about this. Let's sort out some of the policies and really take on these issues.
"If the citizens are alerted and forewarned, they'll alert the authorities. Citizens must know what's in the chemical plants. They need to know the threats. If they don't know, then we lose the best police force in the world — a concerned and watchful public."
Each county's Local Emergency Planning Committee keeps plans to be used in the event of a chemical release. The paperwork also details what chemicals are on-site at each plant and who would be affected if the toxins are spilled. After the Sept. 11 attacks, counties have devised a mix of policies for releasing data. These phone numbers are in effect during normal business hours.
Allegheny: Requests must be submitted in writing. County officials will determine if a citizen lives close enough to a plant to warrant releasing the information. In the telephone book white pages, the county lists ways to protect yourself from a chemical release, as well as numbers to call in an emergency. Information may also be obtained from LEPC board members. For more information, call (412) 473-2550.
Beaver: Citizens can view files, except information about chemical tanks, rescue staging points, evacuation routes, the location of safety directors at plants and their names and telephone numbers. Citizens are not allowed to photocopy the documents and must remain in the room while someone watches them read. For more information, call (724) 775-1700.
Butler: All plans are open for review except for documents about evacuation routes, emergency-responder information, tank descriptions, floor plans and the names and phone numbers of company safety directors. The county has formed a terrorism task force and will be update plans based on the group's recommendations. For more information, call (724) 284-5211.
Fayette: All plans are open for review with emergency management officials. For more information, call (724) 430-9114.
Washington: All plans are open for review with Jeff Yates, the director of public safety, who also teaches terrorism classes at no charge. The county will redact information about plant safety workers and floor plans. For more information, call (724) 228-6911.
Westmoreland: County officials are still working out a formal policy. Plans are open for review with public safety coordinators, although floor plans and evacuation routes will be removed. The county is debating whether police should be notified if someone makes a request about chemical data. Officials will conduct free talks with groups and distribute free videos and pamphlets. For more information, call (724) 830-3771.
Carl Prine can be reached at [email protected] or (412) 320-7826.
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