It’s been well over a year since a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, exploded, killing 15 people and injuring more than 200 others, while leveling a significant part of the small town. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, there were plenty of questions raised about prevention and public safety.
Indeed, as we talked about last year, it seemed like a good time for a conversation about the fact that the plant had no alarms, automatic shutoff system, or firewall. It was also time for a discussion about zoning laws that allowed a highly-explosive plant to be built across the street from two schools and a nursing home.
A year later, however, no new safeguards have been created.
The issue is coming to the fore again recently in the Lone Star State because Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R), the frontrunner in this year’s gubernatorial race, declared that state records on dangerous chemical locations can be withheld from the public. The Texas Tribune reported yesterday on the state A.G.’s rationale.
Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, under fire for blocking public access to state records documenting the location of dangerous chemicals, said Texans still have a right to find out where the substances are stored.As long as they know which companies to ask.“You know where they are if you drive around,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday. “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.”
This would be hilarious if it weren’t so alarming.
Let’s say you’re a parent in Texas and you’re concerned about dangerous chemicals being stored near your kid’s home, school, or playground. According to the state’s attorney general, the man favored to become governor next year, you should “drive around” looking for facilities that might have dangerous chemicals, then go knock on their door, ask about dangerous chemicals, and hope whoever answers is forthcoming.
Under this model, every parent in the state should “drive around” doing this because state government no longer intends to help.
Wait it gets worse.
Abbott said the law requires private companies to tell citizens within 10 days whether they have chemicals. When asked if that meant citizens had the right to go onto their private property to demand the information, he initially said “absolutely.”Abbott corrected himself seconds later.“Just to make clear, you may not be able to walk on private property. But you can send an email or letter or notice to anyone who owns any kind of private property or facility, saying that under the community right to know law, you need to tell me within 10 days what chemicals you have,” Abbott said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, you are obligated under that law to respond.”
Remember, Abbott wasn’t kidding. This strikes him as a responsible approach to public policy and community safety. Literally millions of Texans would be responsible for contacting random businesses – the ones that may or may not have chemicals on site – and asking in writing whether there’s anything dangerous these businesses might want to disclose.
I’ve heard the marketing slogans about Texas being “like a whole other country,” but this appears to be taking the catchphrase to a new level. There just aren’t many parts of the United States in which would-be governors would urge the public to go door to door, sending letters to random facilities, inquiring about dangerous chemicals.