By Meredith Morse
Attorney General Abbott has come under fire for his recent refusal to disclose the locations of facilities that store dangerous chemical compounds. In the face of public disapproval and potential new legislation, policymakers are scrambling to address this inflammatory issue.
In response to last year’s fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people and injured 200 in West, Texas, this week the Texas House Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee held a hearing to discuss a bill geared toward improving safety regulations for storing ammonium nitrate.
Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound that is commonly used in the agriculture industry as a high-nitrogen fertilizer. However, due to its volatility, ammonium nitrate can also been used as an agent in explosives. This chemical compound violently combusts when exposed to heat or ignition, and it is responsible for two fertilizer plant explosions in Texas within the past five years, as well as a recent fire in Athens, TX.
Headed by Democratic Representative Joe Pickett from El Paso, the main provisions of this bill target the safe storage of ammonium nitrate. Specifically, ammonium nitrate must be stored in a noncombustible container, and centers that store ammonium nitrate must report their possession of this chemical compound to appropriate state authorities. Representative Pickett, one of only two Democrats on the committee, specified that the legislative intent behind this bill is to increase the safety standards when dealing with this dangerous chemical compound.
However, representatives from the agriculture industry, as well as several Republican members of the committee, characterized the proposed regulations as overkill. They claimed that it would be too costly for smaller fertilizer business to comply with the terms of this new legislation.
Pickett assured members of the committee that the bill will be narrowly tailored, and that storing ammonium nitrate in noncombustible containers will not be prohibitively expensive for small businesses. Given how destructive this chemical compound is, this safety measure is a reasonable requirement for storage facilities.
In response to concerns about overregulation, Picket urged that, if given the choice between overregulation and doing nothing, he would take his chances with the bill – if we fail to act, he says, we will absolutely have another disaster on our hands.
While committee members disagreed about the benefits of increased regulation, some united against disclosing a list of specific locations of ammonium nitrate storage facilities to the media and the public.
According to some, members of the public already have a means of determining whether they live near an ammonium nitrate storage facility. A Texas Department of Insurance website allows users to enter in their zip codes to determine if there are any ammonium nitrate storage facilities listed within that area. If a storage facility is located within that zip code, the website provides a crude illustration of where that facility can be found.
Some representatives believe that this website is “sufficient to protect the public.” However, the listings in the Texas Department of Insurance database may not be comprehensive enough to give Texans reliable information about ammonium nitrate storage. Out of dozens of fertilizer storage and manufacturing plants located in North Texas, only one business was registered on the website.
However, if members of the public believe that they are entitled to more detailed information than the website provides, Attorney General Greg Abbott has an easy solution: “you drive around, and you can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not.”
When several reporters attempted to follow Abbott’s advice, scores of facilities refused to release this information without a direct mandate from the Attorney General.
Citing a decade-old statute intended to prevent terrorism, Abbott recently refused to disclose the locations of ammonium nitrate storage facilities to the public, because any information that is “more than likely” to assist in the assembly of an explosive weapon is statutorily confidential.
Abbott’s staunch refusal to release this information has come under fire from open records advocates, environmental organizations, and concerned citizens who fear that they unwittingly live in the vicinity of dangerous chemicals. In response to the onslaught of opposition, Abbott admitted that it may be “challenging” for Texans to learn more about the locations of ammonium nitrate storage centers.
This should not be a challenge. Under federal law, the Community Right to Know Act mandates that facilities storing hazardous chemicals must provide Material Safety Data sheets to state and local officials, and these sheets must be made available to the public, as well.
For years, the state has produced the locations of these storage centers upon request. However, Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor, now proposes that local fire stations, and not the government, should be responsible for informing the public of their potential proximity to ammonium nitrate storage facilities. Because fire stations already receive reports of dangerous chemicals from nearby storage centers, Abbott claims that fire stations should be the obvious source of this information for the public. If providing this information to the public burdens the State, shifting the responsibility to hardworking firefighters seems like an unfitting solution.
Ammonium nitrate is a proven danger to the community, especially when the community itself is entirely unaware of its presence. In order to join the increasing public opposition to Abbott’s refusal to disclose the location of ammonium nitrate storage facilities, sign this petition to restore the public's right to access information about hazardous chemical facilities in our neighborhoods.
Pickett plans to continue editing this bill, and he hopes to file a version in November. If you wish to express your thoughts on the public’s access to information about hazardous chemical facilities, you can easily contact Rep. Pickett to share your concerns.
Meredith Morse, a legal intern with Environment Texas, attends the University of Texas School of Law.