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Salem resident Denise Bradstreet stands in front of the Univar plant. She called the Fire Department to ask what kind of chemical plant it is and whether it is safe.

SALEM — She had driven by the gray, two-story building a hundred times, seen the locked metal gates, but had never given it much thought.

Until the Danversport explosion.

“It never bothered me before,” said Denise Bradstreet, 59, of Hathorne Street. “And then there was something nagging me in the back of my head. And then I went, ‘Oh, my God. The little chemical plant.’”

The “little chemical plant” is Univar USA, a chemical distribution center. It is just off Jefferson Avenue, about a half-mile from Bradstreet’s home. It has been in Salem for years.

But after the Danversport chemical plant blast in November, which destroyed more than a dozen buildings, Bradstreet wanted answers about the plant near her home.

“What’s in there?” she asked. “What are we dealing with?”

She called two city councilors.

“I’ve asked the same questions,” said Ward 3 Councilor Jean Pelletier, who lives behind the plant. He has toured the building and been assured by the Fire Department that it follows all local regulations.

Bradstreet said she called the Fire Department and was told that firefighters do an annual safety inspection. But Bradstreet wanted more. When she pushed, she said, she was told that the Fire Department couldn’t provide more because it was a “matter of national security.”

The retired nurse didn’t know it, but she had entered a tangled web of federal laws, state regulations and the public’s right to know in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

According to the federal Right-to-Know Act adopted more than 20 years ago after a deadly chemical accident in India, information about industrial plants, including lists of chemicals and emergency response plans, “shall be made available to the general public.” Local residents, the law says, have a right to know about hazardous chemicals in their communities.

But then came Sept. 11.

‘A public danger’

In the wake of the Danversport explosion, The Salem News asked for a list of industrial plants on the North Shore and the hazardous chemicals stored at each facility. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety denied the request, citing public safety concerns, and sent copies of its ruling to local officials.

A lawyer for the state wrote that “releasing information ... may present a public safety danger to the facilities which contain the materials as well as to the public at large.”

Salem fire Chief Dave Cody said he got a copy of that memo and is following the order. He will not routinely allow the public to see lists of chemicals being used at city manufacturing facilities, nor give out any other detailed information. If someone asks him questions about a facility, Cody said the first thing he wants to know is if that person has a legitimate reason for inquiring.

“If it seems like we’re giving someone the third degree, we are giving them the third degree,” he said. “Even under the right-to-know law, you have to have a definite concern for that facility or you can’t get information.”

If someone wants to know what chemicals are inside a building, or other detailed information, Cody said he will ask them to fill out a request form — which is part of the Right-to-Know Act — and will forward that request to a city lawyer.

Since Danversport, Cody said he has had only one such request — from Bradstreet. Danvers hasn’t had any requests, officials say.

‘Everybody’s right’

There are environmental activists, however, who think the public has a right, under existing laws, to know that information.

“I think it’s a totally legitimate concern,” said Paul Schramski of Toxics Action Center in Boston. “Your average person should know exactly what’s being put in the air, soil and water next to them. That’s everybody’s right.

“The sad state of affairs is that information is being made less and less public every year. Whether they live next door, down the street or the other side of town, they should be able to receive that information and it should be actively given to them.”

Salem has more than a dozen businesses that file required reports about hazardous chemicals. Some are only stores selling batteries, but others are manufacturers using potentially dangerous chemicals. Danvers has more than 20 such facilities.

Officials in Danvers say they want to keep the public well-informed but also are trying to weigh those interests against the danger of terrorists acquiring information that could be used against the public. It is a balancing act, they say, between the public’s right to know and public safety.

“The topic has been bantered around, and I don’t think there has been a clear, consistent answer,” said Danvers Health Director Peter Mirandi, the town’s right-to-know officer.

In Salem, the Fire Department says it will provide any information it can within the law — a law that is being interpreted in a post-Sept. 11 world.

“After that, everything changed,” Cody said, “and people started looking at things differently.”

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