By MAEVE RESTON
April 29, 2005
Santorum's legislation directs the U.S. secretary of commerce to limit the National Weather Service's offerings to just those services that private-sector weather companies cannot or are unwilling to offer - unless the information is related to "severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property" or information that the government must provide under international aviation accords.
Some have criticized the legislation as a giveaway primarily intended to help Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather, whose employees have contributed to Santorum's campaign fund. But a spokeswoman for the senator dismissed that assertion as being without merit.
Foes of the legislation view the bill as a major change to the role the National Weather Service plays, one that could drastically restrict free information for the public as well as airplane pilots and farmers, who are among some 6 million people who each day access weather service data on the Web pages of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.
The legislation "could be read to say that it prohibits the National Weather Service from providing any services online that are available from private vendors," said Chris Dancy, director of media relations for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. "The National Weather Service provides weather data online and through a number of other outlets that are vital to the safety of all flight. ... Everyone needs to at least start on the same page with the same basic information."
Staff members for Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from hurricane-prone Florida, said they were already working to prevent Santorum's bill from even coming out of committee. Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said that during four hurricanes last year, many Floridians depended on National Weather Service data for information that ranged beyond emergency warnings.
"The legislation appears to be aimed at restricting or closing off a free information service for consumers and, in turn, benefiting one or two big companies that sell weather forecasts and other information," McLaughlin said.
"For Pete's sake, no one suggests shutting down the post office because FedEx has a system of delivery," McLaughlin said. But private weather companies have argued that the legislation is necessary to protect their rights in the marketplace. One of the companies advocating for the bill is AccuWeather in State College, Pa., whose employees have contributed at least $5,500 to Santorum since 1999, according to Federal Election Commission reports.