ARCHIVED: Oppose Efforts to Roll Back the Public's Right to Know

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May 7, 1999

Dear Member of Congress,

We urge you to oppose efforts to roll back the public's Right to Know about chemical accident risks in communities across the country. Every fifteen minutes one chemical fire, spill or explosion is reported to the federal government. Each year chemical accidents in the U.S. kill as many Americans as would fit in two fully loaded 737 passenger jets.

In 1990, Congress empowered citizens to learn about potential chemical accidents in order to encourage companies to reduce chemical accident hazards in communities. The Clean Air Act, Section 112(r), requires some 66,000 facilities that use extremely hazardous substances to report what could happen and who could be affected by a chemical accident, from the most-likely accident to a worst-case scenario. Facilities must submit this information by June of this year as part of a larger Risk Management Plan (RMP). By law, this is public information -- intended to be disseminated broadly in order to prevent pollution, save lives, and protect property.

Unfortunately, the chemical industry is pressing for legislation to roll back current law by limiting public access to this vital information on accident risks. These attempts to limit the public's Right to Know rely on an unfounded argument that public access to this information creates a national security threat of increased "terrorism." In reality, EPA has specifically prohibited facilities from including classified information in their RMP, and RMPs include no data on tank or process location, site security, or other similar information.

Furthermore, if security is a concern, then it is the chemicals at facilities, not the information about their hazards, that pose a threat. Keeping the public in the dark about chemical hazards does nothing to reduce the risks associated with operating chemical facilities in and near America's communities and ignores the real threat of chemical accidents: 600,000 incidents resulting from the everyday use of hazardous and toxic chemicals were reported to the federal government between 1987 and 1996. Communities are made safer by eliminating risky operations and reducing the use of hazardous chemicals, not by limiting the public's understanding of those risks.

In order to honor the public's Right to Know and spur meaningful steps to reduce hazards, complete national RMP data, including worst-case scenarios, must be made readily accessible to all citizens. A model for using public information to empower citizens and encourage voluntary reductions in chemical hazards is provided by the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), established by Congress in 1986 to document routine releases of toxic chemicals. Since the creation of the TRI, the U.S. has seen a 46 percent reduction in reported toxic releases. The creation of a similar inventory for accidental release risks could provide the same public benefit. At the local level, access to such an inventory empowers citizens to compare accident potential between facilities and areas, and to protect themselves from accidents and to work with local facilities to reduce risks. At the national level, news media and labor and public interest organizations can compare accident potential geographically and across and within industries. This "public spotlight" encourages voluntary reductions in the hazards posed by chemical facilities in communities.

Proposals that would block national access to complete worst-case scenario information cannot fulfill the needs of the public. Specifically, proposals to omit facility names from a national database prevent the information from providing its intended public benefit. Proposals that allow only local and state agencies to acquire and disseminate the information create an unreasonable burden for these agencies financially and practically. Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) are always under-funded, often inactive, and sometimes non-existent.

We, the undersigned organizations, call on Congress to set aside the false choice between protecting potential victims of terrorism and protecting the known victims of chemical accidents. Instead, Congress must join together behind the only course of action that can unify all concerned parties: real and meaningful steps to reduce the hazards that chemical-using facilities bring to our communities. Such actions include setting and meeting targeted reductions in chemical risks, including eliminating hazardous chemicals and processes. Complete national RMP data, made publicly available, would encourage chemical-using facilities to voluntarily reduce the hazards they pose.

Our organizations urge you to oppose legislative efforts that roll back the public's Right to Know about chemical accidents and instead to support meaningful measures to reduce chemical hazards.

Sincerely,

Robert L. Oakley
Washington Affairs Representative
American Association of Law Libraries

Carol C. Henderson
Executive Director, Washington Office
American Library Association

Fran Du Melle
Deputy Managing Director
American Lung Association

Jerry Berman
Executive Director
Center for Democracy and Technology

David Zwick
Executive Director
Clean Water Action

Jackie Savitz
Executive Director
Coast Alliance

Mary Ellen Fise
General Counsel
Consumer Federation of America

Jean Halloran
Director
Consumer Policy Institute/Consumers Union

Fred Krupp
Executive Director
Environmental Defense Fund

Kenneth Cook
President
Environmental Working Group

Brent Blackwelder
President
Friends of the Earth

Frank D. Martino
President
International Chemical Workers Union Council of the UFCW

Alan Reuther
Legislative Director
International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, UAW

Jay Feldman
Executive Director
National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides

Philip E. Clapp
President
National Environmental Trust

John Adams
Executive Director
Natural Resources Defense Council

Gary Bass
Executive Director
OMB Watch

Boyd Young
President
Paper, Allied/Industrial, Chemical, and Energy Workers International Union

Robert K. Musil, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Physicians for Social Responsibility

Joan Claybrook
President
Public Citizen

Carl Pope
Executive Director
Sierra Club

John Chelen
Executive Director
Unison Institute

Dr. Thom White Wolf Fassett
General Secretary
United Methodist General Board of Church and Society

William J. Klinefelter
Legislative and Political Director
United Steelworkers of America

Gene Karpinski
Executive Director
U.S. Public Interest Research Group

For more information, visit the website http://www.rtk.net/wcs.