OPENING A PANDORA'S BOX

Who would have thought that satisfying the U.S. public's hunger for information about environmental risks could threaten national security?

While this seems unlikely, these very concerns have been raised by both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.Both agencies worry that terrorists, saboteurs or thieves might seize on information that companies are required to submit to the Environmental Protection Agency and use it as a road map for destructive activities.

Indeed, the EPA - in its promotion of environmental ''right-to-know'' laws - had wanted to post the information directly to the Internet to inform the public about potential environmental risks.

The chairman of the House Commerce Committee, Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va., recently held hearings to find out how such information can be protected while still satisfying the public's right to know.

The threat of mayhem isn't the only problem with environmental right-to-know laws.

For example, they tend to result in the dumping of raw data without any meaningful risk information or context; in double or triple counting releases of chemicals into the environment; in counting activities like recycling as ''environmental releases;'' and in forcing companies' proprietary information into the public arena.

In short, our right-to-know laws create information that lends itself to misrepresentation and false alarms.

N-hexane is an example. N-hexane is used in extracting oil from soybeans, cotton seed and peanuts as well as in making adhesives and some polymers. However, the amount of hexane defined as ''waste'' under the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory in 1995 was more than 30 times the total production of hexane that year.

How can industry waste more than it produces? Because 98 percent of the reported ''waste'' was recycled, over and over again, back into the production process.

Consider, too, the story of Charter Steel. In 1994, two environmental groups - Wisconsin Citizen Action and Citizens for a Better Environment - released a study called ''Poisons in Our Neighborhoods: Toxic Pollution in Wisconsin.'' Charter Steel in Saukville was ranked second on their list of Wisconsin's dirty dozen for releases totaling 2.6 million pounds.

''This is the amount of toxic waste we are certain is being thrown into Wisconsin's environment,'' said a spokesperson for the environmental groups.

The ''toxic waste'' that Charter was supposedly releasing was ''pickle liquor,'' a byproduct of steel manufacture that contains sulfuric acid.

But it was not being ''thrown into Wisconsin's environment.'' It was being given to sewage treatment plants, which use the sulfuric acid to treat their sewage water. It saves the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District $300,000 a year.

The public does have a right to know about real environmental risks. The question is, how is that information best produced and best conveyed?

The current approach is fragmented and expensive. The EPA has 308 different reporting rules that, it estimates, take companies millions of man-hours to prepare each year (not including the time required to collect the information in the first place).

Different federal agencies maintain 37 different chemical lists, containing almost 7,000 reporting requirements. The EPA maintains 33 of those lists and has more than 6,400 reporting requirements.

Both the EPA and the Chemical Manufacturers Association estimate that the annual costs of EPA-mandated reports are about $3 billion for industry and state, local and tribal governments.

There are alternatives. Innovative state and private environmental-management codes make it easier for companies to adopt goals that fit their own circumstances. Florida's right-to-know programs and voluntary environmental management codes such as ISO 14000 are two examples.

The public has a legitimate right to know about environmental risks it faces, and Mr. Bliley is right to be concerned about the misuse of environmental information by terrorists.

But both Mr. Bliley and the public would do well to look beyond that obvious threat, to support better alternatives to existing right-to-know regulations.

We need to find ways to inform the public without creating a forum for malicious use of the information that companies (and thus consumers) already pay dearly to produce.

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