Originally created 05/08/99

Administration proposes bill on `worst case' chemical accidents



WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration proposed legislation Friday to disclose regional "worst case" casualty estimates from chemical accidents -- but prevent dissemination of a national database.

The plan aims to keep terrorists from obtaining information to plan an attack, while telling Americans living near dangerous chemicals how they might be affected by a catastrophic event.

In Congress, majority Republicans have expressed concerns about public data that could help terrorists pick a chemical target.

The Environmental Protection Agency originally considered posting plant-by-plant "worst case" estimates on the Internet, but dropped the idea last fall after the FBI, the CIA, the National Fire Chiefs Association and lawmakers raised concerns.

Timothy Fields, acting EPA assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, said emergency officials and the public would be provided information in their own geographical areas under the plan. In some cases, the public information would include a multi-state region.

Some 36,000 facilities must provide "worst-case scenario" information to the EPA by June 21 under a federal law. The data consists of the geographical area that would be endangered by a catastrophic event and the number of people in the area that might be affected.

The law applies to all types of facilities that use 140 chemicals, not just to chemical manufacturing plants.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee, plans to write his own bill. Inhofe has opposed release of a national database, especially on the Internet, and expressed concern that without legislation, the data could be released through the Freedom of Information Act.

Fields said the legislation would only permit those requesting the information "to get paper copies of limited portions for particular facilities in a geographic area. EPA will develop guidance within 60 days of a new law of how paper copies would be distributed upon request."

"We'll make sure no one will be able to have the entire database," Fields said. "The FBI believes this is a reasonable approach to protect against terrorist threats."

Environmental organizations already have said they would oppose only limited release of the information.

"We think the availability of a national data base is critical, because it allows the public to see how a particular facility or industry compares to others, and how a community compares," said Lois Epstein of the Environmental Defense Fund. "If facilities are doing good things to reduce their hazards in another place, the public might want to find out if that can be the case where they work."

Playing down the terrorist threat, Ms. Epstein said, "If this information is considered problematic, so is information on where the largest shopping centers are and the most used subway stations."

Jeff Van, spokesman for the Chemical Manufacturers' Association, said his industry organization supports only limited release of the material.

"We should listen to the experts," he said. "What does an environmental organization know about fighting terrorism. I would suggest they know little to nothing. We don't either."