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Proposed Rule Blocks Public Right To Know about Chemical Accident Worst Case Scenarios

<-- Terrorism and Industrial Chemicals

See Also:
Chemical Accident Preparedness Maps and Resources (CMRN)
04/27/2000 Federal Register: EPA/DOJ Rule - HTML
PDF (267K)
Right-To-Know Nothing
Politics Plays Prominent in Government Denial of Service Attack on Itself.
EPA to Limit Web Information - Washington Post (04/27/2000).
History of "Worst Case Scenarios"

Proposed Rule Blocks Public Right To Know about Chemical Accident Scenarios, Tracks Individuals Viewing Public Information

An OMB Watch Preliminary Analysis

April 27, 2000

A rule proposed jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice today would block the public's right to know about potential chemical accident worst case scenarios in communities across the United States.

A public hearing is scheduled for May 9 in Washington, DC and public comments on the proposed rule are due on June 8, 2000. The text of the proposed rule, along with the EPA and Justice Department assessments that formed the basis of this rule (totaling over 200 pages) can be found at:


Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 requires that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) collect risk management plans (RMP) from plants that manufacture, process or otherwise use specific hazardous chemicals. Included in these plans are offsite consequence analyses (OCA), which indicate how the surrounding community might be affected in a potential worst case chemical accident scenario and alternative case scenario.

Summary of the Proposed Rule

The proposed rule would severely constrain public access to this information. The proposed rule restricts the public's right to know about chemical accidents in their communities, regions and around the country in several ways.

1. Limited Internet Access to Selected OCA Information.

The proposal makes certain OCA information available on the Internet while withholding data elements most likely to spur hazard reduction efforts. The information of greatest interest to the public would not be available. The withheld information includes the following:

- Identity of the chemical involved in the worst-case or alternative case scenario,
- Release rate of the chemical,
- Duration of release,
- Distance to endpoint (i.e., vulnerability zone),
- Population within the vulnerability zone,
- Public receptors (e.g., churches, schools, shopping centers),
- Environmental receptors (e.g., national parks), and
- Graphics such as maps used to illustrate a scenario.

2. Reading Room "Read Only" Access to Paper Copies.

The public would be allowed to view -- but not photocopy -- OCA information in reading rooms of two types: local and federal.

a. Local reading rooms.

The proposed rule would allow, but not require, fire departments, Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs), and State Emergency Response Commissions to establish local reading rooms. Local reading rooms would be allowed to provide public viewing of OCA information for only facilities with a vulnerability zone that extends into the LEPC's jurisdiction. There is no guarantee that the public can access these public records anonymously, nor are there are there requirements that local reading rooms provide access to a minimum number of records. Thus, local reading rooms can limit the number of OCA records viewed by any one person beyond the "local records only" restriction and impose any other controls that reading room providers deem appropriate.

b. Federal reading rooms.

To gain access to the offsite consequence analysis for any facility in the U.S. that had not already publicly released the information, a member of the public would have to travel to one of fifty (50) federal "reading rooms" and show government-issued identification (e.g., a driver's license). Individuals would be able to view no more than ten records each month and could take notes but could not make copies of the OCA. According to the proposal, reading rooms would keep daily sign-in sheets recording the names of each individual requesting OCA information, how many facilities' OCA information the individual had received to read, and the names of the facilities.

The proposal is very vague on what constitutes a federal reading room and where they would be located. A federal reading room could be an EPA regional office or a room in a federal office building. Libraries are unlikely to be designated federal reading rooms because they are ill-equipped and generally disinclined to implement the proposed identification and access controls. Further, the American Library Association passed a resolution last year opposing controls on public access to OCA information and generally do not track or monitor what information the public accesses in public libraries.

It is unclear how the public would identify the location of the nearest federal or local reading room. Also unclear is whether members of the public would have to know a facility name to view OCA information or whether individuals could simply request OCA information for a specific area or view several records for a specific type of facility. Finally, the proposed rule does not guarantee citizens anonymous access to OCA information locally through the LEPC.

The proposed rule also does not discuss how the public would be able to obtain already-available OCA information for facilities that voluntarily release their complete RMP information, including OCA information, to the public. Current law allows unfettered public access to any OCA information for facilities that have released its OCA to the public. Such facilities must certify to EPA that they have released the data to the public. EPA maintains a list of those facilities and OCA information from those facilities is exempt from all restrictions. As of April 14, 2000, 935 facilities have certified to EPA that they have released their OCA information to the public.

3. Address-specific, online "Risk Indicator" system.

The proposed rule would create an online tool that would allow users to enter a street address anywhere in the U.S. and find out whether that address may be affected by a worst-case chemical accident.

There are several limitations to this type of system. First, the data is not precise enough to indicate with certainty whether a particular address would or would not be affected by a chemical accident at a nearby facility. The system could mistakenly give a street address the equivalent of a "clean bill of health" when a chemical accident might in fact affect that address. Second, the user likely would not be able to identify which facility is putting that street address at risk in a chemical accident. The homeowner interested in eliminating her or his vulnerability would have to then contact the unpaid LEPC coordinator, visit a federal reading room perhaps hundreds of miles away, or call EPA.

The proposal also discusses ongoing and additional efforts to develop resources and documents related to risk management planning.

For more information, contact Rick Blum of OMB Watch by phone at (202) 234-8494, by fax at (202) 234-8584 or email at [email protected]

Rick Blum
OMB Watch (CFC #0889)
1742 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington, DC 20009-1171
Phone: (202) 234-8494
Fax: (202) 234-8584
Email: [email protected]
Right-To-Know Network:

See Also:
Chemical Accident Preparedness Maps and Resources (CMRN)
04/27/2000 Federal Register: EPA/DOJ Rule - HTML
PDF (267K)
Right-To-Know Nothing
Politics Plays Prominent in Government Denial of Service Attack on Itself.
EPA to Limit Web Information - Washington Post (04/27/2000).
History of "Worst Case Scenarios"

<-- Terrorism and Industrial Chemicals

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Michael R. Meuser
Data Research & GIS Specialist is an independent firm specializing in GIS project development and data research. We created the first U.S. based interactive toxic chemical facility maps on the internet in 1996 and we have been online ever since. Learn more about us and our services.

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