You know things are seriously wrong when taxpayers underwrite the costs of collecting and disseminating information that will
Published in the Washington Times
August 18, 2000
You know things are seriously wrong when taxpayers underwrite the costs of collecting and disseminating information that will assist terrorists in selecting targets. That is effectively the result of a federal mandate and a subsequent agency rule. Thanks to this program and the likely persistence of environmentalist activists, terrorists may soon be surfing the Internet for information on potential targets - picking targets based on location, potential number of fatalities and potential injuries. Last year, security experts asked Congress to change this federal law because, they said, it would give terrorists around the world Internet access to sensitive data related to chemicals used in U.S. facilities. If posted on line, the information could assist terrorists in selecting U.S. targets in a way that achieves maximum fatalities. Last year, Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, attempted to solve this problem, but his legislation was watered down in a deal with the administration. Rather than prohibiting the placement of this information on line by anyone, they passed a law merely asking the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a rule to minimize security risks. Unfortunately, the agencies have finalized a rule that may well ensure Internet posting. Congress requested that EPA and Justice jointly produce a final rule by this August on the release of "off-site consequence analysis" (OCA). OCA data is part of "risk-management plans" (RMP), which the Clean Air Act mandates that facilities develop to prevent and prepare for potential accidental chemical releases. The OCA sections detail the possible impacts of an accidental release to the nearby community under worst-case scenario conditions. The OCA data identifies such things as how many fatalities and injuries a catastrophic release could cause. When EPA announced it would post this information on the Internet, the FBI, the CIA and other security organizations pointed out that such posting could give terrorists anonymous access to a searchable database for potential targets, enabling them to select the ones that would produce the highest number of fatalities. When the EPA agreed not to post the information, environmental "advocates" said they would get the information and post it on the Internet themselves. The proposed rule fails to prevent this possibility. The rule makes the information available in at least 50 reading rooms throughout the nation and at state and local emergency planning committee offices (which may have information on local facilities). In the reading rooms, individuals may review 10 files per month. The EPA and Justice say this approach would make it difficult to collect and post the information on line. But the reality is, it won't be too difficult. The EPA has already posted the bulk of the RMP information on line, and EPA is proposing to post 22 of 55 questions of the OCA data. That leaves data from only 33 questions to collect. Advocacy groups could print copies of the EPA's Risk Management Plan Form (available on EPA's Web site), mark the sections for which they need data and send off interns to collect the data. It would take a few minutes per form because filling out most questions simply entails checking boxes or recording a number; the longest sections simply include a phrase or sentence. If groups enlist just 1,000 volunteers to collect and input 10 facilities a month, they could have the information on 15,000 facilities (the number of plants for which the EPA has RMPs) on line in less than two months. This rule does not appear to be a serious attempt at keeping the information off line. Indeed, it is in EPA's interest to have it posted. The information is designed to scare the public rather than inform, to prompt the public to call for increased regulation of industry and expanding EPA power in yet more areas. No where are such scare tactics more apparent than in the EPA proposal to create a "risk indicator system." The risk-indicator system would allow the public to type in an address and find out if they are in a "vulnerable zone" - the area in which worst-case-scenario damage could supposedly result. By using the loaded term "vulnerable zone," this approach will do more to simply scare the public than inform. Unfortunately, this system could also have the unintended effect of stigmatizing homes located in "vulnerable zones," adversely impacting property values. After all, who wants to buy property in a "vulnerable zone"? Yet the risks are not as the term implies. Worst-case-scenario data describes the most highly unlikely event, not the likely scenario or anything remotely related to likely risks. If federal officials were truly concerned about public safety, they would have done better than this rule. The only solution is to bar Internet posting altogether. Angela Logomasini is director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.