Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Proposed bill would change National Weather Service


Proposed bill would change National Weather Service

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) is pushing a bill that some fear would restrict what information the National Weather Service (NWS) provides to the public. The bill has drawn criticism from those who say it unfairly favors private weather providers, and would endanger the public by preventing the dissemination of certain weather data.

Under the proposed legislation, the NWS would be allowed to offer particular types of services only if the private sector does not offer them — a provision similar to rules that guided the agency for 14 years until last year.

When the rule changed, the NWS and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), expanded into areas already served by the commercial weather industry, according to Santorum's office.

The bill would protect the 14 private weather service companies in Pennsylvania — including AccuWeather in State College, Pa., Santorum spokeswoman Chrissy Shott said. AccuWeather, which says it employs about 340 people, provides weather data to a variety of outlets — including media organizations such as The Associated Press.

"This is about job retention in Pennsylvania," Shott said. The NWS would still issue severe weather information, she said.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has criticized the bill, saying the NWS received nine million hits on its Web site during the four hurricanes that hit his state last year, and the information they were seeking went beyond that of the warnings issued.

Nelson's spokesman, Dan McLaughlin, said it is a dangerous precedent to begin shutting down government services because the private sector offers it.

"It ... could have a domino effect," McLaughlin said.

The (Florida) Palm Beach Post, which was first to report on the issue last week after the bill was introduced, said NOAA has taken no position on it. The story quoted Ed Johnson, the NWS's director of strategic planning and policy, as saying his agency is expanding its online offerings.

Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said the bill is written so broadly that in its strictest interpretation it would prevent the NWS from distributing weather data to the Federal Aviation Administration that pilots use.

"The government has an obligation to protect the safety of flights and weather is the single greatest factor in determining the safe conclusion of a flight," Dancy said.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Monday that FEC filings show that employees at AccuWeather have donated at least $5,500 to Santorum since 1999.

Barry Lee Myers, the company's executive vice president, denied that employees were trying to influence Santorum on the issue.

He said if the bill were to pass, the public would likely notice little difference, and it could in fact benefit.

"Encouraging that activity in the private sector is a much better way" to encourage innovation "than having the government try to do it," Myers said.