Pick almost any town in America, or just about any neighborhood for that matter. You won't have to look far to find a plant that uses dangerous chemicals. One such plant in Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, makes artificial sweetener. And it makes some people a bit nervous, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart.
"Chemicals, a little dangerous, I know. I was in the service. I know what chemicals can do," said one man near the Cincinnati plant.
What most people don't know, however, is that the Cincinnati plant and more than 36,000 like it had until noon Monday to report what would happen if all of a sudden, they just blew up.
They had to estimate how many people could be injured or killed. How wide an area would be affected. And what would the plant do about it?
It's called the "Worst Case Scenario" report, and Congress ordered it after a chemical accident in Bophal, India, killed 2,000 people. Could that happen in the United States, they wondered?
Everyone agreed it was a swell idea. The government would find out vital information about these facilities, while nearby residents could find out what the danger was just by clicking on the Internet.
But now that we've got all this data, guess what? A huge debate is erupting over just who should be allowed to see it.
"I'm not ready to give it out to anybody who just might want to cause problems for my community," said Chicago Deputy Fire Chief John Eversole.
Mindful of events like Oklahoma City, and scared of the reach of terrorists like Osama bin Laden, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, joined by the FBI and the CIA, have moved to block publishing the information on the Internet.
They would require residents wanting to read it to file a formal Freedom of Information request and prove they were an actual resident.
As you might imagine, people who live near chemical plants, like a group in Cincinnati, want full disclosure.
"If they really wanted to reduce the risks, they wouldn't keep it secret," said a woman who belongs to the group.
"[People have] a right to know whether they live next to a time bomb, whether it's got a short fuse or a long fuse, a fast fuse or a slow fuse. Then they can decide what to do," said Dave Altman, another member of the Cincinnati group.
Besides, the plants aren't reporting on how to cause an accident or about their security measures, activists point out. And, they argue, terrorists have proven they don't need a government report to find a suitable target.
"You're trying to cut off the right of these people to know what's going on, and that just doesn't make common sense," Altman said.
And maybe it doesn't. But in the age we live in, it just may be part of the price we have to pay.
©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
Copyright 1999 CBS. All rights reserved.
CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff