EPA data faces terrorist threats and FOIA requests

Government efficiency may be leaving the nation vulnerable to cyberterrorism, warns House Commerce Committee chairman Thomas Bliley, R-Va.

The Environmental Protection Agency, trying to improve efficiency by requesting that chemical companies file facility disaster information electronically, may soon be forced to divulge a framework for terrorist attacks, said Bliley. At issue are EPA rules requiring 66,000 chemical facilities across the nation to send the agency detailed risk assessment profiles on where and when accidental chemical releases could occur and on "worst case scenarios" by the end of June.

That information could be collected into one database for communities to access under the Freedom of Information Act and then put on the Internet for anyone, including terrorists, to see where the most dangerous chemicals in America are stored, Bliley said.

The EPA had originally planned to directly put the entire risk assessment profile on the Internet through its "Right To Know" program. But pressure over the past year from Bliley, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the FBI caused the agency to abandon that plan.

Instead, the agency plans to make the information available to the specific communities affected through disaster control centers such as the local fire department. The information may be distributed, either through paper copy, or on a censored Web site that removes the "worst case scenario" portion of risk assessment plans, the EPA said. A spokeswoman said the agency hadn't made up its mind whether the rest of the data should be subject to FOIA requests.

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club are not happy about the EPA's reversal on posting the profiles online because it hinders their ability to determine whether a community is doing all it can to minimize risk. Some groups are considering filing Freedom of Information Act requests for the information if they feel the risk profiles need to be available through the Internet to ensure community safety.

"No group that I know of is actually planning on FOIAing the information but it has certainly been discussed and we haven't ruled it out. I think we want to see what the information looks like and then determine what is best for the environmental groups," said Ed Hopkins, senior representative for the Sierra Club.

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