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Data on Internet Poses Latest Concern For Chemical Distribution Businesses

THE GROWING availability of individual company data on the Internet significantly impacts the chemical distribution industry as well as other businesses that handle hazardous materials, said Richard Siegel of Roy F Weston Inc, a Manchester, New Hampshire, consulting business.

Because of governmental data collection, the public has immediate access to information that might not have been available before, he said. In addition, so much information is available that companies may lose some of their proprietary rights.

With so much at stake, it is even more essential that companies develop a comprehensive risk management plan that not only addresses safety, which is the number one priority, but contains a well-thought-out public communications program, Siegel said.

Siegel and Jeffrey Longsworth of Kelley Drye & Warren, a Washington, DC, law firm, discussed the Internet and its relationship to risk management at OPSEM2000 in Dallas September 13-15.

In conjunction with the availability of information is the growing ability of people to master use of the Internet. As the companies are spotlighted on the Internet, particularly with regard to emission and pollution records, environmental organizations and the general public are able to capture the data and use it against the businesses.

One web site, www.scorecard.org, lists companies pollution records by facility, including manufacturing and storage sites. The site is a function of the Environmental Defense. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1967. In one of its first activist roles, Environmental Defense was instrumental in the banning of DDT in 1972, according to information on the web site.

Where company pollution records are listed on the www.scorecard.org pages, there are accompanying e-mail and fax links with prepared letters to top Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials and governor of the state in which the facility is located. Letters can be faxed to the company itself.

"Industry is collecting the information, but the analysis will be done by environmental groups," said Siegel. However, not all those seeking data are from environmental groups. "Many diverse groups are demanding access to information about the toxicity of chemicals, risks from facility operations, product risks, and environmental performance."

Information posted on the web site comes from company reports mandated by federal and state agencies. Longsworth pointed out that companies may not understand how to correctly and legally handle these requirements. They can control the process of gathering information and data so it isn't used unfairly against the company.

"Legal considerations vary according to the reason for managing risk," said Longsworth. Companies should determine if risk management is the result of compliance responsibilities, common law-type responsibilities, or inferred responsibilities.

Compliance responsibilities include the duty to comply with all applicable laws, the threat of EPA/Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and state and/or criminal penalties.

An attorney can help a company maintain confidentiality in order to insure that the company has a competitive business position. Legal experts can help in handling the public perception of a company, in pending or future litigation, and regulatory proceedings.

The industry can expect more web sites such as www.scorecard.org, increased pressure for test data, and a greater demand for use and exposure of information, Siegel predicted.

Companies should learn what environmental information is available about their businesses, correct any inaccuracies through reporting agencies, and make environmental information available in the community where the facility is located.

He advised companies to work with local environmental and hazmat safety groups, create a company web site, and develop a proactive communication strategy.

"Take the public's concerns about potential health effects seriously," he said. "Understand the risk from your operations, start building relationships now, and don't mix risk reduction and benefit messages." People who live near a facility and feel they are being threatened aren't likely to be appeased just because a finished product has a good use.

"The industry must continue to build trust and credibility with the public," Siegel said.

OPSEM2001, the conference and exhibition sponsored by the National Association of Chemical Distributors, is scheduled for September 19-21, 2001, at the Charlotte Convention Center, Charlotte, North Carolina.

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