Editorial: Texas AG off-base in decision not to release chemical locations

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Originally published July 7, 2014

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s comments about disclosure of where dangerous chemicals are stored in the state proved to be almost as explosive as a bin of ammonium nitrate.

Abbott, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, has been criticized after his office ruled the Texas Department of State Health Services did not have to release the names and locations of the storage facilities, something the agency had routinely done in the past.

That decision seemed particularly odd coming just a year after the horrific explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, when fire ignited a stockpile of ammonium nitrate. The incident claimed the lives of 15 people (mostly first responders), injured 200 others and leveled much of the small town.

In defending his office’s ruling — one he said he was unaware of until the uproar — the attorney general made several statements that were insulting and certainly not befitting a candidate for governor.

He said people concerned about the location and the amounts of dangerous chemicals could easily find out by driving around their communities.

“You know where they are if you drive around,” Abbott told reporters. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, ‘Well we do have chemicals or we don’t have chemicals,’ and if they do, they tell which ones they have.”

When he was questioned about whether average Texas residents could go onto private property and start asking questions, he said they could send emails or letters requesting information under the community right to know law, which requires companies to reply within 10 days. And that’s assuming that residents would know the companies they should seek information from in the first place.

Another flaw in Abbott’s reasoning is that many of these companies have shown they won’t respond to requests from news organizations, and they’re not likely to comply with a request from an average citizen.

In the past few days the attorney general has tried to walk back those comments, conceding that it is more difficult to get the information than he had suggested.

Abbott explained that in the initial ruling his office was following the law as outlined in the Texas Homeland Security Act, passed after 9/11 to keep dangerous chemicals out of the hands of potential terrorists.

Calling his ruling a “win-win,” Abbott says that rather than getting information from a state agency, anyone interested in the location of potentially hazardous facilities should contact their local fire stations, which receive reports under a federal mandate.

Putting that public information burden on local fire departments is not reasonable.

There ought to be full disclosure about these plants, as residents have the right to know if dangerous chemicals are being stored near their homes, schools and playgrounds. The Legislature still must come up with more stringent regulations on how these materials are kept.

The possibility of another explosion like the one in West poses at least as much of a safety threat as a potential terrorist stealing chemicals and making bombs.