Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, the federal government has been re-thinking its website policies. Anything that the government feels could be used by terrorists was removed from the Internet. For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission completely shut down its website for a time and little of it has been restored. The Army Corps of Engineers removed information about dams across the U-S from its sites. Similarly, some information about natural gas pipelines, and transportation systems was removed. The Environmental Protection Agency removed information about hazardous chemicals. Now, the E-P-A is considering putting back some information about the risks communities face because of nearby industrial plants. But some industry groups were glad to see the information removed and don’t want it put back on the internet. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, the federal government has been re-thinking its website policies. Anything that the government feels could be used by terrorists was removed from the internet. For example. the Nuclear Regulatory Commission completely shut down its website for a time and little of it has been restored. The Army Corps of Engineers removed information about dams across the U.S. from its sites. Similarly, some information about natural gas pipelines, and transportation systems was removed. The Environmental Protection Agency removed information about hazardous chemicals. Now, the EPA is considering putting back some information about the risks communities face because of nearby industrial plants. But, some industry groups were glad to see the information removed and don’t want it put back on the internet. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.
In the last decade or so, the government has put volumes and volumes of information on the internet. In the interest of an open and free government, federal agencies have given the public access to all kinds of data. But after the terrorist attacks, there was a scramble to remove a lot of that data. Some government agencies concede they might have overreacted when pulling information off the web. But, most indicate they thought it was better to be safe than to leave information on the internet that terrorists could use to more effectively plan an attack.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency removed Risk Management Plans from the EPA website. Those plans give details about certain hazardous chemicals that are kept at industrial plants, how a chemical leak or fire at a plant would affect the surrounding community. and even how many people might be hurt or killed in a worse case scenario.
The EPA Administrator, Christie Whitman recently explained to journalists why she had the agency remove those plans.
“That was information on our website that really gave terrorists a road map as to how to where to plan an attack. I was just not sure that we wanted to have that up for any –not so much terrorists, but terrorist wannabe— to find and to take advantage of.”
The information was originally put together in EPA office reading rooms open to the public. Later it was put up on the EPA’s website. That was so community groups could more easily learn about the risks they faced from nearby chemical plants. It was also used by some neighborhood groups to pressure companies to either implement better safety measures or stop using certain chemicals.
Administrator Whitman says in the weeks since the attacks, the EPA has been reviewing whether some of that information can be restored to the internet.
“What we’re doing is reviewing and seeing if it is readily available elsewhere, then there’s no point in our taking it off. We’d put it back again.”
But many chemical companies and other industry groups don’t want that information put back on the government’s websites, even though it’s sometimes still available elsewhere on the internet. In fact, they don’t want the information available to the public at all.
Angela Logomasini is with the Washington-based libertarian think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. She says the information, such as worse case scenarios, shouldn’t be available because it might be used by terrorists. Logomasini was surprised to learn the EPA Administrator is considering putting the information back on the internet.
“I think it’s ridiculous. I think what they should be doing is trying to investigate, you know, what the risks are and whether this is really a wise thing to do. You know, just simply because other groups have taken the information and posted some of it on the internet does not mean that our government should go out of its way and provide it too.”
Logomasini says the risk management plans are of little use to the public anyway. She says the only people who used them were environmentalists, who wanted the information to scare people.
There’s some skepticism about the chemical industry’s real motivation to keep the information out of public view. Besides environmentalists. Some journalists use the information to track industry safety and government regulations.
Margaret Kriz is a correspondent for the National Journal where she writes about government, industry and the environment. She says since September 11th, chemical industry people might be arguing that the risk management plans should be kept secret for national security reasons. But before then, their reasons had more to do with corporate public relations and competition.
“Some of the information that was taken off the web by EPA the day of the attack is information the chemical industry has been trying to get off the web for years. They have not wanted it on there because they really don’t want to have— they fear two things: they fear the public will overreact to the information if they find out (about) some chemicals in a nearby plant and the second thing, they’re fearful if a competitor for them will go look at this information and find out what chemicals are being used and figure out what their secret formula is for whatever they make.”
So, it appears to at least some observers that the chemical industry sees the concern over terrorism as an opportunity. an opportunity to get the internet-based information removed for good. But it looks as though the Environmental Protection Agency is leaning toward making some of the information available on the website again. However. EPA Administrator Christie Whitman didn’t say when. Other agencies are also reviewing the information they’ve removed from the web with an eye toward eventually making some version of the data available to the public once again on the internet.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.