You Can Find Out If You Live Near Explosive Chemicals Even If Texas Won't Tell You
When you buy a house, there are several factors to consider, like lot size, crime rates, and proximity to good schools and/or a decent bar or two. And, of course, whether or not your new home is within the blast zone of any explosive chemical plants.
That last factor is the rationale behind the federal Community Right to Know Act of 1986. But the Attorney General's office said recently that certain Tier II chemical information is no longer accessible to the general public. So do you have a right to know, or not?
The AG's stance came to light after a fire in Athens, Texas at a fertilizer plant, when WFAA attempted to obtain documentation about the chemicals housed in the plant. Instead, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) told reporters that Tier II chemical documentation was confidential. Tier II chemicals include ammonium nitrate, the chemical housed at the West fertilizer plant explosion in April 2013.
The AG's opinion can be traced back to last May, when the DSHS received a public information request about a Tier II chemical report. The department asked the AG to rule whether it should make the information available.
"There had been some previous Attorney General rulings, related to other agencies, that made similar rulings confidential. So we thought it would be prudent to make sure we were following the law," says Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the DSHS. The AG denied the request last month, saying that in accordance with Texas law, that information would be confidential because of security concerns. The Attorney General sent its ruling to the DSHS in a letter dated May 22:
You [DSHS] argue that the submitted information is confidential ... because it reveals the location, quantity, and identity of hazardous chemicals that are more than likely to assist in the construction of assembly of an explosive weapon. Upon review, we find the submitted information is confidential...
Since then, news agencies have reported breathlessly that the Attorney General's office thinks chemical information should not be accessible to the general public. Many are reporting that Abbott's office suddenly decided that this information would be unavailable to people.
The AG's office, naturally, views things differently. "That's misinformation," AG spokesman Jerry Strickland told Unfair Park today. "Bottom line, the Tier II reports are available to the general public directly from the facilities. To say the general public no longer can access key information is simply false."
According Texas law, he said, information requests like this are denied by the government because of security concerns. They are accessible to the general public directly from the factories themselves, though. How getting the information from one and not the other is safer is unclear.
The lingering question, of course, is whether the facilities know, and will follow, the law. We just filed our own request with the Univar USA plant in Dallas. We'll let you know what we learn.
In case you're too lazy to call your neighboring plant, about a year ago WFAA made this nifty interactive of ammonium nitrate storage facilities across the state -- information provided by the DSHS, a year before they decided to make sure they were actually allowed to give out this information.