Last April saw a devastating explosion rip through West, Texas after a fertilizer company's supply of ammonium nitrate somehow ignited (ammonium nitrate is the compound involved in one of the biggest industrial disasters in U.S. history, as well as the bombing of Oklahoma City in 1995). The resulting blast left 15 people dead and 160 people injured. Among the contributing factors to the level of devastation this explosion caused were the types of facilities adjacent to the West Chemical and Fertilizer Company, including a public middle school, a nursing home, and a 50-unit apartment complex. The extent of the damage can be seen below.
In the wake of this preventable tragedy and President Obama's Executive Order to review the factors behind it, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has ruled that while private companies must still annually report certain quantities of hazardous chemicals (called Tier II reports), public officials are not required to make this information available to the public. This flies in the face of 30 years of precedent, in which that information was made available upon request of any interested member of the public, whether it was for community emergency planning purposes or simply private individuals wanting to know whether or not hazardous chemicals are stored near where they live, or where their kids go to school.
What is Abbott's solution for concerned citizens wanting access to information that has been public since it started to be collected? Why, simply go door-to-door and ask local companies whether or not they store hazardous chemicals. Oh, having trouble gaining access to private property? Simply write them a letter or email, or give them a call and any company will be sure to provide that information.
Except that this approach doesn't seem to work all that well.
Abbott ostensibly made this ruling based on a homeland security law, arguing that public access to what has always been public information would allow terrorists that same access, which includes the location and quantities of potentially dangerous chemicals. However, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) explicitly states that part of its purpose is to provide the public with information about possible chemical hazards in their communities.
It's interesting to note that Texas bills itself as business-friendly, particularly to industries such as oil and gas refineries (the nature of whose work means that they deal with large quantities of hazardous chemicals, and have a less-than-stellar safety record), and that Greg Abbott has received campaign contributions from individuals whose interests in such areas has been well-established.