Access to U.S. chemical-site records is spotty

NEW YORK Wed May 22, 2013 9:10pm EDT

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - A law Congress passed more than a quarter-century ago to alert the public to chemical hazards is seen today by some government officials as a potential tip sheet for terrorists.

As a result, public access to hazardous-chemical inventories is often spotty.

Twenty-nine states provided copies of their chemical inventory data, but 10 refused, some citing concerns that the information might be abused by terrorists.

South Dakota declined to provide data in electronic form. The rest either didn't have electronic data or had not responded to requests as of Wednesday, four weeks after Reuters sought the data. Federal law stipulates that data be released within 45 days of request.

The U.S. hazardous-chemical reporting program, known as Tier II, is meant to alert residents to dangers in their communities and to inform planning that could prevent fatalities and injuries. The program grew out of the Emergency Planning and Community Right To Know Act, enacted in 1986, following leaks of dangerous chemicals in India and West Virginia.

Awareness and preparedness have drawn scrutiny in the wake of an April 17 fertilizer-plant explosion in West, Texas, that killed 14. Investigators are exploring whether the community and first responders knew what was stored at the plant and properly prepared for a disaster. (See the Reuters Special Report: Poor planning left Texas firefighters unprepared. here)

The law entitles anyone, not just emergency responders, to review the reports. Reuters asked officials in all 50 states for copies of their chemical-inventory databases, with varying results.

Illinois makes the data available online. Georgia emailed the data within 15 minutes of the request; Kansas and Kentucky did so within hours; Oregon shipped a DVD overnight.

An Arizona official said he would only release data for a specific facility, and only after consulting the company that had reported it, as required by state but not federal law. South Carolina said requesters must prove they live near a facility to obtain information.

Most states that declined to release data cited concerns about terrorist attacks or a state law barring release. (See related graphic: In harm's way: link.reuters.com/ver38t)

A mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel was used to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. After the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Congress enacted regulations to safeguard such chemicals and keep them out of criminal hands. In addition to reporting chemical inventories to state and local emergency planning agencies, companies are supposed to report to the Department of Homeland Security and then work with DHS to devise security measures.

Mark Howard, director of the Arizona Emergency Management Commission, said releasing the data would compound the difficult problem of securing chemical sites. By releasing only facility-specific information, Arizona officials are attempting to foil terrorists while fulfilling the purpose of the law to make essential information available to the public, he said.

"Stuff goes missing all the time," Howard said. "I honestly believe this has the potential to create more harm than the public knowing."

State government officials have access to the statewide inventory, he said, and are better suited to make decisions about chemical threats. "At some point, you have to hope the government is doing the right thing," he said.

Selective disclosure wasn't the intent when Congress passed the law, said one of its authors, former U.S. Rep. James R. Jones, D-Oklahoma.

The law was intended "not to have secrecy or make it very difficult to communities to know what is going on," he said, "but it was to have a transparent, open means of letting the communities know what the potential dangers were."

While the security concerns are legitimate, withholding data carries its own set of safety risks, said Michael Livermore, executive director for the Institute of Policy Integrity at New York University. Data enables an informed debate about risks, disaster planning and budget priorities.

"I think the Texas disaster shows why we need to make this data available: not only to inform the neighbors, but also to inform the broader policy discussion," Livermore said.

(M.B. Pell and Ryan McNeill reported from New York.)

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