Homeland Security May Require Environmental Sacrifices

WASHINGTON, DC, July 12, 2002 (ENS) - The Bush administration's proposed new Department of Homeland Security could cause a variety of harmful environmental side effects, ranging from increases in invasive species to restricting the types of information available to the public. Conservation groups warned this week that the drive to boost the nation's security could overrun efforts to protect the nation's natural resources.

More than 120 scientists, along with a variety of environmental and scientific groups, sent a letter to Congress and the administration this week warning that the new Department of Homeland Security could inadvertently open the floodgates to an invasion of harmful pests, weeds and pathogens that already cost the U.S. almost $100 billion per year.

President George W. Bush has proposed melding several government agencies into the new security department, including two key agencies that prevent and control invasive species: the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Department of Transportation's Coast Guard.

"It's hard to imagine that a department rightfully focused on preventing terrorist activity will pay much attention to the movement of pests and weeds," said Dr. Phyllis Windle, senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Unless reorganization substantially strengthens efforts to curtail the spread of invasive organisms, this work should stay where it is."

beetle

Transferring duties of certain federal agencies to the Department of Homeland Security could allow invasive species, like this Asian longhorned beetle, easier access to U.S. soil, critics warn. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)
APHIS and the Coast Guard currently prevent and control some of the most harmful invasive species. According to the scientists' letter, "Harmful invasive species brought into this country from abroad have become severe threats to our native species, damaged our economy, and in several cases, such as the Asian tiger mosquito and the Africanized bee, have become public health threats."

The scientists say the "vast bulk" of invasives prevention and monitoring "is not in line with the Homeland Security mission" and that "the work is likely to suffer from the transfer."

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry held a staff roundtable on Thursday to examine transferring these Agriculture Department activities to the new Homeland Security Department. Earlier in the week, House and Senate committees debated provisions of homeland security legislation that would exempt industries providing security information from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Section 204 of the Homeland Security Act would exempt any information voluntarily submitted to the new Department that "relates to" potential terrorism vulnerabilities from FOIA rules. Critics charge that this controversial proposal would provide companies with a blanket exemption from FOIA, carrying potentially serious consequences for the environment, public health, and safety and security.

The provision would bar the federal government from disclosing information regarding information regarding environmental hazards, health hazards, product defects and other dangers, including reports of accidental spills. The exemption also would give industry shelter from the consequences of violating the nation's environmental, consumer protection, and health and safety laws, environmental groups warn.

Critics of the proposal argue that existing exemptions contained in the FOIA regulations provide adequate protection against harmful disclosures of information critical to the nation's security. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has the authority to classify documents as exempt from disclosure on grounds of national security, a power that was updated after the September 11 terrorist attacks to eliminate any concern that such information would be used inappropriately.

FOIA also exempts confidential business information, which courts have extended to "financial or commercial information provided to the government on a voluntary basis," if it will "customarily not be released to the public by the person from whom it was obtained."

plant

The Homeland Security Act provides few new security measures for chemical plants like this Dow Chemical plant in Ludington, Michigan. (Photo courtesy Michigan Department of Natural Resources)
Public interest groups have also warned that the proposed Department of Homeland Security would not address safety issues at the nation's chemical plants. A number of government and media reports have documented that chemical plants remain vulnerable targets for potential terrorist attacks.

A recent report by the National Research Council (NRC) observed that, "the volume of toxic materials in production, transport, and storage is still enormous, and as a result there are still many hard to protect targets."

The Bush administration's Homeland Security Act would seek to hide the dangers posed by chemical manufacturing and processing plants by allowing these plants to withhold information from the public concerning plant vulnerabilities - rather than addressing the vulnerabilities at their source, critics charge.

Two officers of the proposed new Department could play a role in chemical plant safety - the Undersecretaries for Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection and for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Countermeasures. However, the legislation does not assign responsibility for reducing such hazards or addressing the threats posed by these facilities.

Another bill now before Congress, the Chemical Security Act (S 1602), would require the EPA to enhance site security and eliminate potential targets at chemical plants.