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Reaction overwhelms chemical Web site

Thursday, April 16, 1998

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- It's an environmentalist's dream: an Internet site where anyone can punch in his own ZIP code and find out what companies are releasing which chemicals into the neighborhood air, water or soil.

The site address for the "Chemical Scorecard" on the World Wide Web is www.scorecard.org. It was inaugurated yesterday by the Environmental Defense Fund, an independent, non-profit scientific and advocacy group supported by its 300,000 members.

The Web site was so quickly overwhelmed by users that at midday it crashed -- temporarily. In fact, demand far exceeded the expectations of the consultant who helped set it the site, and he apologized with a mea culpa that appeared each time the site was too busy to respond to a user's request.

Despite the first-day glitches, fund officials pronounced themselves delighted with the site.

"It's a giant step toward making the facts about local pollution -- and the uncertainties -- as easy to get as a local weather report, and as much a part of people's everyday resources," said fund Executive Director Fred Krupp.

Fund officials acknowledge, though, that there's a big hole in the information the site provides.

"We know we do not have the answer to the most important question for most people: 'With this local pollution in my own neighborhood, am I safe or not?"' Krupp said, adding that government officials don't have that answer either.

"Answering the safety question takes specific information, locality by locality, about who's actually being exposed to how much of which chemicals," he said. "Who should know the answer? We think that the companies responsible for the pollution should know."

Fund officials conceded that gathering such safety information would be a complex process but argued that companies should be attempting such analyses to ensure the safety of communities that surround them.

Jarad Smith, a spokesman for the Chemical Manufacturers Association, a Washington, D.C., trade group, said companies are making more information available to the public, and he echoed fund officials in urging citizens to contact companies directly for more information about chemical releases and their effects on humans.

Many companies have more recent data about their chemical releases than the fund's Web site offers, Smith said. He said the Environmental Protection Agency is still collating a national report with more recent data, which would be used to update the Web site, and it isn't yet available.

"Our industry is in a position where we want to be responsive to the public, but we also need to protect our confidential business information," Smith said.

"What's important to note, though, is that we don't run our businesses under the pretense of 'Trust us, don't track us.' You can't run your business that way anymore. ... But we need to make sure that the information available has meaning, is accurate and is useful."

Even with the lack of definitive safety data, fund officials argue that there's a wealth of highly useful information at their site, including:

Chemical release reports for the 50 states, 2,000 counties, 5,000 ZIP codes or 17,000 companies, based on the most recent (1995) overall data available from the federal government;

A health-based ranking system that allows chemical emissions to be weighted according to the severity of their health hazards;

Maps that allow users to click down to a local-street grid;

"Take action" options that let users send free faxes directly to top officials of companies that make chemical releases;

Detailed profiles of more than 5,000 chemicals as well as notes about chemicals for which too little information is known to assess their risk or safety.

The Web site shows that Pennsylvania ranks 15th among all states for the amount of chemicals its companies release.

It also shows there are 32 Pittsburgh companies making chemical emissions, indicates where they are and what they release.

The site also says Allegheny County ranked in the top 20 percent of all U.S. counties in 1995 for emissions of chemicals that are cancer hazards, among other things.



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