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Storm Brewing Over Weather Service Access

ByABC News
May 19, 2005, 5:52 PM

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2005 — -- A storm is brewing in Congress about a vital government function Americans depend upon: weather forecasting.

In the last year or so, the government has been making its National Weather Service data more widely available through direct outreach to TV, radio, newspapers and the Internet; NWS officials have appeared for live media interviews; and the NWS Web site, which now gets approximately 5 million hits a day, has become more user-friendly.

Commercial forecasters are not welcoming what they see as direct competition and, with their allies in Congress, are pushing to stop the government from infringing on the service they have built into a billion dollar-a-year industry.

"We work hard everyday competing with other companies and we also have to compete with the government," said Barry Lee Myers, executive vice president of AccuWeather Inc.

Sen. Rick Santorum, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate leadership, has at least 14 such commercial weather companies in his home state of Pennsylvania, including powerhouse AccuWeather. In April, Santorum introduced the National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005, which states that with the exception of the "preparation and issuance of severe weather forecasts and warnings designed for the protection of life and property of the general public," the National Weather Service must not provide any product or service "that is or could be provided by the private sector."

Opponents of Santorum's bill say any limitations on the way NWS information can be provided to the public is squandering taxpayer dollars and potentially dangerous. "Weather for a pilot is essential," said Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, who logs on to the NWS Web site before he flies his Cessna. "Forty percent of all fatalities are caused by weather-related factors."

Boyer points out that the NWS is a taxpayer-financed organization -- to the tune of $782 million last year -- and commercial weather companies use its data for their reports.

"It's the principle," Boyer said, "we're already paying for this as taxpayers and then we've got to pay again?"