Whose right to know?

The attention to terrorism and possible attacks on industrial plants as well as public facilities has uncovered an interesting question: How much information about what goes on inside a plant is appropriate for public record?"Blatant examples of the problems associated with one of the nation's key right-to-know laws are everywhere," says Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environment...
By Richard L. Dunn Editor February 15, 2002

The attention to terrorism and possible attacks on industrial plants as well as public facilities has uncovered an interesting question: How much information about what goes on inside a plant is appropriate for public record?

“Blatant examples of the problems associated with one of the nation’s key right-to-know laws are everywhere,” says Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).

It should be quickly pointed out that the CEI describes itself as “dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government.” Even so, the concern is a valid one.

For several years, industries have reported the amounts and types of chemicals used in their plants. And amendments to the 1990 Clean Air Act now in effect require the federal government to publicly disclose sensitive information about industrial facilities around the country. According to CEI, some 15,000 facilities have provided this information to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which made the information publicly available last year.

Using right-to-know provisions of the law, a newspaper was recently able to obtain a wealth of details about the types of chemicals stored in various industrial plants, the amounts stored, and the number of people that could be killed or harmed from an accidental release or terrorist attack.

The point is, we seem to be making it especially easy for any terrorist or other ne’er-do-well to pursue his harmful interests.

Of course, the argument has been convincingly made in the past that neighbors of industrial plants using dangerous chemicals should have the right to know of such dangers. But in the light of last year, one has to question whether such data should be made available to any one at any time. Some control over the dissemination of this information would seem to be in order.

CEI’s suggestion is to make the data available only to local emergency planners. These local officials could then use the information for emergency planning and response and to educate the community as necessary. This proposal is reasonable and responsible.

If individual neighbors to a plant felt the need for detailed information, they could contact local officials to obtain it. Local officials might ask for proof of residence or some other qualification before releasing the data.

We would agree that certain members of the public have a right to know what’s going on in their communities. But we also believe that these kinds of sensitive data should be shielded from easy access.

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