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Chemical reports sparking a debate

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Source: San Jose Mercury News

Published Monday, June 21, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

Chemical reports sparking a debate

Release of data on Net may be risky, some say

Some fear putting the reports online would make them accessible to terrorists.

Mercury News Staff Writer

Dow Chemical Co. today is supposed to submit a report to the Environmental Protection Agency detailing how many residents around its Pittsburg plant would be affected if there was a massive, accidental release of 180,000 pounds of toxic chlorine in 10 minutes. The document, which will also include information about other chemicals at the plant, a five-year history of accidental chemical releases, location of nearby schools and hospitals and emergency response plans, will be submitted by about 60,000 other chemical facilities across the country.

Congress required collection and public release of the materials as part of the 1990 Clean Air Act. The EPA wanted to post the reports on the Internet, but law enforcement and industry groups have objected to making this ``worst-case scenario'' information available, saying it would create an easily accessible targeting tool for terrorists.

Just how the information will be disseminated has ignited a dispute over whether the Internet -- a medium whose very nature encourages easy access and wide distribution -- would be used for good or evil. And the efforts to strike a balance between the public's right to know and preventing potentially dangerous information from ending up in the wrong hands may be among the first of many controversies involving public government records and the Web.

It's also coming at a time when Americans are especially sensitive about what's available online, given incidents in which school children downloaded bomb-making instructions or got access to violent and racist information.

``It used to be that public records were kept in limited places,'' said Tara Lemmey, president of San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. ``Now a public record can be exposed to basically the whole world on the Internet. We have to start asking some hard questions about what should and shouldn't be public.''

At least nine facilities in Santa Clara County, including sewage treatment plants and chemical distributors, must submit reports today.

While groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers do not object to releasing that kind of information to local communities, they say making it easily accessible to terrorist groups around the globe puts millions of Americans at risk.

``We are opposed to . . . allowing (anyone) to put on the Internet a searchable database that could be used by terrorists to target our facilities,'' said Mark Burtschi, director of air quality at the association.

Web's power

But the power of the Web should be used to give people living near these plants easy access to the information, said Bill Pease, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.

``Communities have a right to know about the possible off-site consequences of chemical hazards,'' he said. ``We have way too many of these accidents occurring in the Bay Area and surrounding communities.''

Restricting the information to a library won't make it inaccessible, but it will deny it to a mass audience, he said.

``You can expand the audience if it's on the Internet from maybe the 10 people in a community who have the energy and intent to get themselves to the library to look at it, instantaneously to thousands of people,'' he added.

And the more people know about the potential effects, the more pressure they could bring to bear on companies to reduce risks, Pease said.

The information will become available to groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund if Congress does not pass any specific exemptions and the group proceeds with plans to request it under the Freedom of Information Act. From there, it could be posted on the group's site, which now allows anyone to locate polluting industries in U.S. neighborhoods and research the amount of chemicals released.

Accessing information

The Internet is transforming the debate about distribution of information. In the past, people had to go out of their way to find public records, which were often kept in obscure places. But as more and more make their way online, ``it's going to become a debate for every single document that falls into the public records arena, how wide is the distribution and what was the original intent of the document,'' Lemmey said.

For example, records of how much you paid for your home have long been on file at the county recorder's office but now they are available to nosy neighbors with a few clicks of the mouse.

Lemmey and others, including the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy & Technology, say intent is a key question: If the chemical reports were meant to increase public awareness, then the Internet is the perfect venue for that.

American Civil Liberties Union senior staff attorney Chris Hansen said the Internet should not be treated any differently than other information channels.

Public documents

``If it's a public document, it's a public document,'' Hansen said. ``You can't restrict access to information on the unsupported potential for misuse. If there is a danger of someone using the information in order to harm public safety, it seems to me that danger exists whether it's on the Internet or whether it's on paper.''

``You have to be wary about this notion that information should be (circulated) only to those people we trust, only to the in-group,'' Hansen added.

The Manufacturers Association supports some options that are now part of legislation pending in the U.S. House and Senate that would restrict access to the ``worst-case'' data.

One choice would be to create public ``reading rooms'' at fire and police stations and libraries. People could get the information on a stand-alone computer terminal that would not be connected to a printer and would have no disk drive. They would be prevented from copying the data.

Another alternative is to require people to request the information through state and local environmental agencies. The number of copies people could get within a year could be limited to 10 to 50. Under this system, law enforcement officials would have a record of who requested the information, Burtschi said.

Legislators are working to reach a compromise on those bills and another, which proposes a one-year moratorium on releasing the worst-case information.

For now, the public will not be able to access the data until at least August or September, said EPA Region 9 spokesman Leo Kay. Today, the EPA will begin sorting and checking the reports.

It will be the first time such detailed data is available to the public. After toxic fumes from a Union Carbide plant killed more than 2,500 people in Bhopal, India, California and other states required companies to tell residents about the kinds of chemicals being stored and handled in their neighborhoods.

Worst-case scenarios

George Carson, hazardous materials specialist for Santa Clara County, noted that worst-case scenarios outlined in the plans have a very small chance of occurring -- about the same, some say, as all four wheels falling off a car at the same time.

How the worst-case information will be released to the public is still being determined by the EPA, law enforcement groups and Congress. But if there is one thing both sides in the debate agree upon, it's that the Internet is radically changing the debate in a way that no one could have imagined.

``Congress never envisioned an Internet in 1988,'' Burtschi said. ``There's no way that the Internet was considered as a medium for this sort of information.''

Contact Deborah Kong at dkong or (408) 920-5922.

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