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Nation of Poisons
Page 3

Nevertheless, September 11 signaled that this nation is loaded with toxic targets. Government officials rushed to deal with the threat by ordering better security at sites such as nuclear power plants. If the nation's leaders could gaze past immediate concerns, they might also discern the longer-term security need for a national discourse on reducing the country's toxic addictions. For such a discussion to occur, the public requires information about the hazards within its midst. Yet part of the government's response to the attacks has also been an over-hasty, knee-jerk instinct to smother information on environmental threats. Which means citizens will know less about everyday toxic risks within their communities and about potential terrorist targets.

The better-safe-than-sorry impulse of bureaucrats was understandable. Who wants to provide useful information to the next Mohamed Atta? After the attacks, even the Federation of American Scientists, which has long worked to challenge excessive government secrecy, pulled from its website information on the locations and layouts of little-known foreign nuclear weapons facilities. "We wanted to think about this," says Steven Aftergood, director of the secrecy project. But, he adds, "I oppose stuff being removed indiscriminately from government websites when there is little connection to terrorism and when it's done without consideration for competing interests."

Take the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. After the attacks, its website dropped a reference library for nuclear information, material on evacuation routes, nuclear regulations, and reports regarding safety and accidents at nuclear plants. As the nonprofit Public Citizen complained, "This type of data has nothing to do with a reactor's vulnerability to an attack, but provides the public with data on accidents and mishaps at reactors caused by human or mechanical error."

Websites were the main casualties of the information clampdown. According to a list compiled by OMB Watch, a public interest group, the state of Pennsylvania withdrew data on water and air quality and mining operations. The state of New Jersey removed information on tens of thousands of chemical storage sites. (Firefighters often accessed this data on their way to fires.) The EPA yanked risk management plans (RMPs), which contain information about potential chemical accidents and response plans at 15,000 sites.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention withdrew a report that referred to security shortcomings within the chemical industry (but did not mention specific problems at particular facilities). The Los Alamos National Laboratory cut off access to scientific reports in its unclassified database. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission withdrew documents containing specifications for energy facilities. The U.S. Geological Service pulled reports on water supplies in the United States.

Some of the material no longer accessible on the Internet may still be available to members of the public dedicated enough to work through the process of requesting it directly from the agencies. But there were other, potentially more far-reaching, moves against public information. Attorney General John Ashcroft instructed federal agencies to use a tighter standard in releasing materials in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. And Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) circulated a draft energy security bill that would have severely restricted government's need to respond to FOIA requests. NRDC's Barbara Finamore and Geoff Fettus found that in some cases, the changes could "take an enormous bite" out of environmental review of government or industry activity.

"There can be a difficult balance between security and information," says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch. "But we can distinguish between knowing that a dangerous chemical is sitting in the west wing of a specific facility on the third floor in a 10-gallon drum -- information that arguably should be kept from public view -- and knowing that if an accident happens at this facility there would be a toxic plume reaching 4.3 miles." The very purpose of RMPs, notes Bass, is to help people negotiate hazard reductions. To do that, they need to know about the hazards.

Federation of American Scientists

NRDC on nuclear weapons and waste

OMB Watch

To take action on security legislation, see NRDC's Earth Action Center.

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Photo: John Dolan

OnEarth. Winter 2002
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council