Shortly after the anniversary of the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people, wounded 226, and upended a large portion of the small town of West, Texas, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board said the incident was preventable and that it resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert it.
The explosion at the West Fertilizer Company storage and distribution facility was caused by ammonium nitrate. There are dozens of facilities across Texas storing that same chemical in large quantities. In the year since the explosion the Texas government has only made one change to laws surrounding chemical disclosure and safety: restricting publicly available information regarding the location of these chemicals.
In May, after the Chemical Safety Board report came out, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled that government entities can withhold the locations of dangerous chemicals listed in state records (Tier II reports) to protect the public from terrorism or other threats. Abbott, a far-right Republican who is the leading candidate for Governor in Texas, then said that people can identify such facilities with a “drive around” their neighborhoods, and that they can find out about the chemicals by asking the companies via letter or email. He originally said they could just walk up and ask, but had to backtrack after remembering those facilities were on private property.
The statements set off a firestorm, and Abbott was forced to concede that this method of inquiry was burdensome, but that he still considered the change in law a “win-win.”
University of Texas at Austin journalism professor and author of several books about Texas, including City on Fire: The Explosion That Devastated A Texas Town and Ignited A Historic Legal Battle told ThinkProgress that Abbott is following in the footsteps of current Gov. Rick Perry in putting the demands of big oil and chemical operations ahead of long-range societal problems in addressing the “so-called Texas Economic Miracle:”
I don’t believe Greg Abbott is waking up every morning like Mr. Burns in The Simpsons, rubbing his hands together and saying ‘How do we screw over the little people today?’ But he is slavishly committed to a regrettable Texas tradition: Putting unbridled faith in oil and chemical companies to do the right thing. To self-regulate.
Minutaglio said a similar occurrence to what happened in West, Texas actually also happened in Texas in 1947 during the greatest manmade disaster in American history — The Texas City Disaster — in which tons of ammonium nitrate exploded and killed close to 600 people.
“There is a price to pay when oversight and transparency are not willingly given to those hard-working military veterans, farmers, teachers and firemen,” he said. “Somehow, it was decided in Texas, there are things that the ordinary people need not know.”
CREDIT: AP/Tony Gutierrez
In reporting on Abbott’s decision, the Dallas Morning News wrote that “the fact that Abbott has taken thousands of dollars from political donors related to Koch Industries, a multinational corporation with extensive chemical interests, creates particularly noxious ‘optics’ for the Republican attorney general in his campaign for governor.”
That’s right, what Abbott was less willing to discuss was that his campaign has received more than $75,000 from Koch interests since the April 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant, including a $25,000 contribution from first-time donor Chase Koch, who recently became the head of Koch Industries’ fertilizer division. Koch, 36, is the son of Charles Koch, one of the two billionaire Koch brothers leading the family’s politically influential business conglomerate. Abbott also attended a Koch retreat in which he had the privilege of mingling with many wealthy donors.
Texas law requires businesses that stockpile fertilizer to file Tier Two reports with their local fire departments and with the Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The reports provide information about what chemicals are being stored and in what quantity. Under the Community Right-to-Know Act, Tier Two reports may be requested directly from the facility storing the chemicals and a response must be provided 10 days. DSHS spokeswoman Carrie Williams has said that the department will continue sharing chemical inventory records with emergency planners and first responders but that they will cease disclosing that information to the public.
Abbott told the Texas Tribune that using the Texas Homeland Protection law of 2003 he “ruled that information that is gathered by the state of Texas, if it contains information that falls in the category of homeland security, that type of information cannot be received by the public.”
Joseph Larsen, an expert on public records and attorney for the Homeland Security News Wire, said in response that “claiming this statute as a basis for withholding is richly ironic given the public safety disaster that has resulted from failure to make the public aware of the presence of the massive quantities of fertilizer at the West plant in the first place.”
While Abbott seems more concerned with keeping domestic donors happy than foreign terrorists at bay, his opponent, Wendy Davis, is using the fallout as a way to draw a stark distinction between her priorities and those of her opponent.
On Monday, Davis announced plans to strengthen the Texas Community Right-to-Know Act, saying she would make Tier II chemical information availability an emergency legislative item during her first week in office.
“Communities deserve to know if there are explosive chemical stockpiles blocks away from their schools, day cares, nursing homes and grocery stores — especially after the tragedy in West, Texas,” Davis said in a statement. “If Attorney General Greg Abbott refuses to reverse his dangerous ruling to keep chemical locations secret from parents, we will have to do it for him.”
Davis is not the only state politician taking issue with Abbott’s approach. Texas state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), head of the state House’s Homeland Security Committee, recently unveiled a draft bill to stiffen regulation of ammonium nitrate.
Pickett’s proposal met with immediate pushback from state Republican legislators. Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) said the new rules could put “Mom and Pop” fertilizer companies out of business.
After the hearing, Pickett said if he really wanted to be “onerous” he would’ve proposed a statewide fire code rather than a bill focusing solely on ammonium nitrate. Texas currently has no fire code and most counties are actually banned from setting up their own fire codes. A fire code in West, Texas may have led to inspections that would have identified potential causes of the fire, such as a wiring problem.
The U.S. Chemical Safety Board found 1,351 facilities across the country that store ammonium nitrate, and the Dallas Morning News identified 74 facilities in Texas as having at least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate or ammonium-related material.