Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Right-to-Know vs Security

Not long after the 9/11 dust settled on the streets of New York the Environmental Protection Agency was required to remove a great deal of information about chemical facilities from its web sites. The community right-to-know information had been posted on the web site to allow any US citizen to know what dangerous chemicals were being used in large quantities in their neighborhoods. The security folks decided that the same information could be used by the likes of al Qaeda to select their next target, high-risk chemical facilities. The Information This last Monday, the pendulum started officially swinging in the other direction. The EPA posted a press release on its web site announcing that it had “added more than 6,300 chemicals and 3,800 chemical facilities regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to a public database called Envirofacts”. This was being done as “part of Administrator Lisa P. Jackson’s commitment to increase public access to information on chemicals”. The Envirofacts database includes “facility name and address information, aerial image of the facility and surrounding area, map location of the facility, and links to other EPA information on the facility”. It also includes information on nearby populations, including sex, age, ethnic background and income. The data base can be searched by chemical or by geographic area. The Uses This information is valuable to environmental activists to help them identify and target facilities that are ‘likely’ to be having a negative impact on the health of their neighbors. The information could be used to initiate investigations into populations to see if they have higher than normal rates of medical issues related to chronic exposure to chemicals reported to be released from the nearby facilities. Unfortunately, it could also be used by terrorists looking for potential targets. A search could be done by toxic chemical and then each facility in a geographic area holding that chemical could be evaluated to determine which targets would have the highest off-site impact. The population data, maps and aerial photographs of the facility could provide initial planning information. The information available on the site would not be enough to provide the necessary details about chemical storage locations and security arrangements to conduct the actual attack, but it could provide necessary data for target selection. I remember how the environmentalists complained in the fall of 2001 about how this valuable information was taken down without any discussion of the pros and cons; without any discussion of how legitimate security concerns could be addressed while allowing for public dissemination of the information. I would have hoped that they had also remembered, but I guess it is just another example of turn-about being fair play. The Barn Door is Open It is too late to reverse disclosure. The internet is a vastly different place than it was 9 years ago. I am sure that there are copies of the information on a number of repeater sites as well as postings on independent environmental sites. There is no sense in fighting this disclosure, it is a done deal and no amount of court rulings or legal threats will change that. All we can do now is to see how this will play out. Fortunately we as a nation do have one thing going in our favor this time. The CFATS program is in place and we are improving the security at the highest-risk sites (except water facilities of course). We will be much better prepared to counter terrorist attacks on those facilities than we would have been in 2002. BTW: The data base is full of holes. I did a quick check on some facilities that I am familiar with and there are a number of critical chemicals are not listed for one reason or another; just another example of the efficacy of the EPA’s regulatory reach.

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