Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R), the frontrunner in this year's gubernatorial race, recently declared that state records on private facilities with dangerous chemical locations can be withheld from the public. But what if a Texas family wants to know if dangerous chemicals are being stored near a school or their home?
No problem, Abbott said. Folks can just "drive around
," look for businesses that might keep dangerous chemicals around, and start knocking on doors -- one at a time. (The Republican policymaker later amended this to say citizens probably can't walk onto private property, but if Texans send every business a letter or an email, the owners of the various facilities should write back.)
A local news station in Dallas, WFAA, thought it'd be interesting to put Abbott's guidance to the test
WFAA chose a couple businesses not far from downtown Dallas. First up was Oxy Chemical, where the plant manager seemed eager to comply. But, 15 minutes later, things started to look less promising. WFAA was told to take up the request with an Oxy Chemical corporate communications manager in Los Angeles. [...] Next stop was Buckley Oil Company just down the road. Buckley had a lot of chemicals stored in their wide open lot. But, when asked to see the company's Tier II report, the manager on site said the City of Dallas has it. WFAA was told to ask Dallas Fire-Rescue or the company's attorney. Not only did they not give hand over their Tier II report, they said not to record images of their chemical inventory stored on site, which was clearly visible through an open gate.
A company manager said he might have to call the Department of Homeland Security to complain about the news crew.
Remember, the state A.G. specifically told the public, "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."
So much for that idea. In an editorial yesterday, the Dallas Morning News said
, "Boy, did Attorney General Greg Abbott step in it."
Not to put too fine a point on this, but the underlying question relates to why we even have a government in the first place. Over 26 million people live in the state of Texas, and chances are, all of them want to enjoy some basic safety from dangerous chemicals.
They cannot, however, individually "drive around," looking for businesses that may or may not have dangerous chemicals on site, asking each enterprise to be forthcoming, one at a time. Indeed, thanks to the WFAA report, we now know what happens to Texans who follow Abbott's advice and start asking legitimate questions about public safety.
It's here where the government -- an institution through which citizens act collectively to promote the general welfare -- is supposed to intervene. Some 26 million Texans can't reasonably be expected to knock on every business' door and/or write to every business' address, seeking information about where dangerous chemicals might be stored, but the public sector can act to look out for the public's interest.
Except in this case, Abbott is effectively telling Texans, "Good luck. You're on your own."
It doesn't have to be this way. Government can approve zoning measures to keep dangerous chemicals away from schools and residential communities. Government can inform the public about potential threats. All that's needed is political will.
Abbott's recent ruling, in an open-records case, relied on the state's anti-terrorism statute. It told the Department of State Health Services that it may withhold information collected on dangerous chemical inventories. 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. A day after Abbott's "just ask" remark, he conceded in an interview with The Associated Press that it's "challenging" for people to find out about chemical stockpiles.
Ya don't say.