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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Security or Censorship

Air Date: Week of

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Government agencies have recently been removing information about chemical plants and pipelines from their websites. Darren Samuelsohn, a reporter with the environmental news service Greenwire, talks with host Steve Curwood about why some people consider this information essential to local citizens' groups, while others see it as a security risk.



CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Since September 11th, governments and public agencies have rushed to beef up security. In the face of concerns that information detailing the vulnerabilities of chemical plants, pipe lines and other key facilities could fall into the wrong hands, a number of government databases have been blocked from public view over the internet. Activists fought hard to make this information accessible to the public so local groups could act as watchdogs and help ensure the safety of their communities.

Darren Samuelsohn is covering this issue for the environmental news service Greenwire. He says some governmental officials fear this information could provide a road map for terrorists.

SAMUELSOHN: A lot of people on Capitol Hill and within industry are saying that terrorists can access this information and then use it in a very easy way to cause destruction all across the country.

CURWOOD: So what specifically has been taken off the web?

SAMUELSOHN: A number of things have come down. First off, on the Transportation Department's web site there was a map of pipe lines across the country and their weaknesses, whether they be because of critical habitat for native species or large population centers, places where maintenance was done on a regular basis or maybe there was a maintenance problem. That came down within, I think, a day of the attack. Also, Center for Disease Control report on security at industrial facilities around the country; that report basically says that security at industrial facilities is from very poor to good. So that came down. And then also, the Environmental Protection Agency. About four or five days after the attacks, they took down what are known as risk management plans. That's something that was called for under the Clean Air Act. Industry had to submit to EPA a long list of things that people around industrial facilities in the country that use hazardous chemicals, scenarios that would potentially happen in the event of a criminal or terrorist attack.

CURWOOD: Before the events of September 11th, was all of the most sensitive information up on the web?

SAMUELSOHN: No, not everything. There was something called worst case scenarios and those are the worst things that can happen at industrial facilities that use chemicals around the country. And that information, there was a big fight on Capitol Hill between environmental groups, right to know groups, freedom of the press groups, and national security federal agencies, saying please don't put that information up. And it was limited, and put into special reading rooms – there's about 50 of them around the country, one in every state, I believe. To gain access to that information you have to go through a little bit of a protocol and you can't take notes when you sit down – or, I'm sorry, you can't photocopy the information. It's a little bit unclear if you can take notes or not of the stuff that you're reading. And right now there's a push to try and take that access away as well.

CURWOOD: Let me get this clear. The government agencies are taking this off on their own, they've been ordered? What's the situation here?

SAMUELSOHN: It's a little bit unclear who's telling who to do what. It looks right now like the individual agencies are still evaluating their situation since September 11th. They're probably doing it on their own, right now. There's, I'm sure, with the Office of Homeland Security, the new White House office, there's going to be some sort of a White House directive to deal with this issue. I know right now they're sparring over just giving information to congressional leaders in sort of a classified format and then congressional leaders leaking information to the media. So you've got to expect maybe the White House to make some sort of a decision on this at some point, too.

CURWOOD: I don't think anybody here would debate the necessity to keep the wrong information from falling into the hands of people who would do harm. On the other hand, some people would say that this could be a smoke screen for shoddy safety practices. What's going on in this case do you think?

SAMUELSOHN: Well, the debate's pretty interesting. I mean, on one side you have people who want to keep this information out of the hands of the public, off the internet, and they have a number of reasons why. They're concerned that false alarms might be called in, that their resources might be tapped, there might be sort of a cry wolf syndrome, I guess, that people might get a lot of false threats over tapped resources there. Some people believe, even in restricting the information, some people do believe that locals should have some access to this information, but there's also a degree where they shouldn't have, and it's sort of a fuzzy line that's still being worked out right now. And they're also saying that the recent events of September 11th, that they're considering – these are people who are trying to restrict information – that they're considering all the security measures right now, and they're doing a pretty good job of it, and we should trust them.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the response from some of the environmental and citizens rights groups about the government taking this information off the web sites.

SAMUELSOHN: I think they've been trying to document it as much as they can. There's a right to know group called Working Group on Community Right to Know. There's also OMB Watch; they've been documenting and trying to keep a running list of what information has come down. It seems like it's changed a couple of times since September 11th. I was talking to someone yesterday from OMB Watch who said they hadn't yet contacted anybody on the Hill to make their case known. I guess there are people that they expect – lawmakers who are traditionally environmentally friendly – who will probably speak out when the time is right. But they’re concerned that there won't be a line that will have been clearly drawn in terms of what information can come down. And we could get to the point where there's pretty much nothing on the internet that would be of benefit to a democracy.

CURWOOD: Darren Samuelsohn is a reporter with the environmental news service Greenwire, in Washington. Thanks for taking this time with us.

SAMUELSOHN: Thank you.



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