, 2000

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JUNE 21, 1999  4:10 PM
Sierra Club
Allen Mattison, 202-675-7903
On Chemical Disaster Deadline, Congress Works To Revoke Public's Right To Know
WASHINGTON - June 21 - Today chemical companies are required to report information about potential accidents to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in an effort to better inform the public about the risks they face, but Congress is scrambling to keep the data from seeing the light of day. The Senate could vote as soon as tonight on a proposal to revoke the public's right to know about chemical disaster threats.

"Today is supposed to be a day of sunshine, but Congress seems intent on making it rain," said Debbie Sease, Sierra Club's legislative director. "Instead of the public being informed about potential chemical disasters, the public's representatives in Congress are working to cloak that information in darkness, to prevent people from learning about the chemical threats facing their communities. Congress is not working to protect the public -- rather, they are trying to protect the chemical industry from public scrutiny.

"The old adage `what you don't know can't hurt you' falls flat when it comes to chemical disasters. What you don't know can kill you. But if communities are well informed, they can ask local chemical facilities to clean up their acts and reduce their risk of a chemical disaster," Sease said. "To save lives, prevent pollution and protect property, Sierra Club is asking members of Congress to defend the public's right to know."

When Congress passed the 1990 Clean Air Act, it gave citizens the power to learn about potential chemical accidents in an effort to improve public safety and to encourage companies to reduce their hazards. The law requires facilities that handle extremely hazardous substances to report what could happen under scenarios for different chemical accidents. By law, chemical facilities are scheduled to report that information to the EPA by today; EPA would then make the data available to the public. The industry's Congressional supporters are racing to change the law to prevent EPA from making the information public, but some in Congress -- led by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) -- are fighting to protect the public's right to know.

"As the Senate reaches a compromise position on this legislation, Sierra Club wants to applaud Senator Frank Lautenberg's efforts to improve the public's health and safety protections in this bill, S. 880," Sease said. "Although this bill has been improved, at its core it would roll back the public's right to know. We hope the House of Representatives will reshape this bill so it truly protects Americans' safety by improving facility security and reducing the risks of chemical accidents."

The chemical industry and those in Congress trying to rescind the public's right to know do so under the guise of preventing terrorist attacks. But even the FBI says the public needs to know about the potential for chemical accidents. Chemical facilities experience thousands of accidents each year; none has ever been subject to a terrorist attack.

Environmentalists, community groups and public officials all oppose efforts to rescind the public's right to know. Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls outlined her opposition by saying, "From a practical standpoint, restrictions on the release of information would create a bureaucratic nightmare and limit the effectiveness of local safety initiatives."

Facts about chemical accidents:

* A total of nearly 60,000 chemical accidents occur each year.

* More than 400 chemical accidents per year cause immediate death, injury, and/or evacuation.

* Each year, accidents involving toxic chemicals kill more than 250 people.

* Accidents release over 135 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment yearly.


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