JUDGE AND JURY - Community understanding is the key to risk management - The EPA's Internet ruling doesn't hide a corporate duty to public safety, says Tom Hoog, CEO and president, Hill and Knowlton.
On November 6, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reversed a decision that would have required companies that store threshold levels of hazardous chemicals to post worst-case accidental impact estimates on the Internet. US security officials and chemical companies persuaded the EPA that terrorists could have used computers to scan the Internet and find bombing targets.
The worst-case scenarios are one element of Risk Management Programs (RMP's) that are slated to be submitted to the EPA by 60,000 companies, including chemical storage facilities in June 1999. Among other things, the RMP's will indicate how far major chemical releases might travel, and provide plans for dealing with public health crises.
The EPA's decision represents an intelligent compromise that values public safety over potentially dangerous random disclosure. While it has yet to be determined how the EPA will make these estimates available to the public, companies storing chemicals have a similar public safety responsibility to the communities in which they operate that goes well-beyond mandated reporting requirements.
Fortunately, some companies, like Eastman Chemical Company, also recognize this responsibility. The Eastman facility in Kingsport, Tennessee is one of the largest chemical manufacturing sites in the US. The company's community relations efforts over the past several years have demonstrated a sincere willingness to place public and employee safety at the top of its value hierarchy.
Regardless of the EPA's future decisions, Eastman plans to inform members of their community about its RMP during a town meeting in April 1999, two months before it becomes public. 'The more we facilitate community understanding, the better off Eastman and the community will be at reducing risks,'stated Lou Moore, one of the company's senior community relations representatives.
Eastman's latest efforts represent only one part of a much larger community education campaign that the company started several years ago. The campaign includes: a community advisory panel made up of residents; a neighborhood newsletter distributed to more than 6,000 area residents; public tours; safety awareness for nearby school children; partnerships with area educators; a hotline; and a half-dozen other initiatives from Friday morning 'community coffees' to the distribution of an annual safety and environmental report.
In a perfect world, corporate conscience would always guide action, but we have all seen examples of corporations that fail to do the right thing - and it generally comes back to haunt them through crises or litigation.
Long-term protection of any entity's reputation and, ultimately, its sales is contingent upon a consistent adherence to a philosophy that firmly places public interests ahead of short-term gain.
The EPA recognized that 'doing the right thing' in terms of the public safety meant reversing itself on Internet posting. We can only hope that companies' actions are similarly guided and follow the example of Eastman Chemical Company through voluntarily informing their communities. After all, it's the right thing to do.