the past, terrorists built their own bombs in secret hideaways or
safe houses. This made terrorists somewhat easier to track, as officials
could monitor purchases and transfers of bomb-making equipment and
other activity that would suggest potential terrorism. When someone
other than a farmer purchased large amounts of fertilizer, for example,
it could arouse suspicion. For more exotic weapons, including from
high-grade explosives to chemical or biological weapons, the chances
of detection would be even greater.
That was then,
this is now. Twenty-first century terrorists need not make their
own bombs. Instead, they can rely upon turning more mundane items
into tools of terror. The bombs of September 11 were fuel-laden
passenger jets. Future attacks could rely upon crop-dusting planes
or trucks hauling hazardous wastes, according to recent reports.
Some speculate terrorists might also target nuclear plants or other
facilities where a small explosion could trigger catastrophic results.
Most federal agencies are devising procedures to frustrate such
attacks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on the
other hand, oversees a program that could make such attacks easier
to carry out.
112r of the Clean Air Act, companies that use potentially dangerous
chemicals are required to develop "risk-management plans"
(RMPs) and submit them to the EPA. Chemicals covered range from
highly toxic industrial chemicals to more mundane substances, such
as ammonia and propane. An RMP must identify the chemicals used
at the facility and the safety measures implemented to prevent industrial
accidents. More ominously, an RMP must also detail "worst-case
scenarios" for accidental releases of chemical substances and
the likely impacts in the surrounding communities. A facility that
stores propane, for example, must detail the sort of propane explosion
that would cause the most harm, including how many people could
be affected by such an accident, no matter how remote the possibility.
Thus RMP data could serve as handy means for aspiring terrorist
to identify potential targets. Want to cause a nasty chemical fire
near Atlanta or a gas explosion in Phoenix? RMP data could point
the way. It's no wonder the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Angela
Logomasini dubbed Section 112r the "Federal Terrorist Assistance
Program." (See www.cei.org.)
The EPA initially
sought to post RMP data online, for any "concerned" citizen
to examine. Web access to this information would most readily facilitate
the public's "right to know" about chemical dangers, a
high priority for the EPA. Yet web posting of such sensitive information
could also facilitate terrorist attacks against industrial facilities.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and International Association
of Fire Chiefs, among others, warned. Congress responded with legislation
requiring the EPA and Justice Department to limit distribution of
RMP information about potential offsite impacts of industrial accidents.
The EPA agreed not to post such information online, but the full
RMPs would still be available for public inspection at 50 or more
federal reading rooms nationwide. Shortly before then-EPA Administrator
Carol Browner left office, the EPA proposed easing reading-room
access to RMP information by providing searchable "read-only"
databases of RMP data in addition to printed copies.
have prevented the EPA from posting sensitive RMP information online,
but environmental groups have rushed to fill the void. OMB Watch,
a liberal advocacy group, posts RMP executive summaries at www.rtknet.org.
Thanks to their efforts, it only takes a few minutes online to discover
potential targets for terrorist activity. A quick perusal of the
listings for Ohio from the AC Humko Columbus facility to
the Zanesville Water Treatment Plant reveals information
about propane storage facilities, pharmaceutical plants, chemical
factories, and other inviting targets. At one facility, for example,
the listed worst-case scenarios are: 1) an acrylonitrile spill exposing
all within five miles to exposure levels above those deemed safe
by EPA; and 2) a butadiene explosion in a rail car affecting 0.43
miles. Another RMP notes that nearby schools and churches will be
within the radius of a worst-case chemical release. Although OMB
Watch has only posted the executive summaries thus far, this information
could be used to identify a list of facilities for which the full
RMPs are available at the various public-reading rooms. And OMB
Watch is not alone. Other groups, such as Greenpeace, are collecting
and distributing RMP data as well.
It may be impossible
to prohibit self-proclaimed "public interest" groups from
posting RMP data online, but the EPA need not give them a hand.
There is no reason for the federal government to force companies
to disclose sensitive information about facility operations and
vulnerabilities to the public at large. It is one thing to require
industrial facilities to file information about chemical use and
potential accidents with local fire departments and emergency preparedness
officials. It is quite another to make such information readily
available to any wannabe terrorist or anyone else with a mind to
commit mayhem. In New Jersey, for example, government officials
only disclose facility data about worst-case scenarios to interested
citizens who ask for it, monitoring requests so as to identify potential
terrorist activity. This allows people to learn about potential
risks in their own community without endangering the public at large.
The EPA needs
to reconsider its insistence on the public's "right to know,"
and Congress needs to revise Clean Air Act section 112r. This program
has done little to inform the public about genuine environmental
risks, but it could lead terrorists to inviting and vulnerable targets.
Once the government forces information about potential accidents
to be disclosed, there is no controlling the use to which it could