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EDITORIAL: Attorney general decision hinders public from readily learning of chemical threats

EDITORIAL: Attorney general decision hinders public from readily learning of chemical threats

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We can think of lots of good reasons why everyday, ordinary Texans should know whether a plant in their neighborhood has stockpiled enough chemicals to blow out a crater and flatten homes and schools. Topping the list: the decided allergy that state leaders have about regulating industry — even when such industry poses a possible threat to the lives of state leaders’ own constituents.

That’s why we have trouble understanding the reasoning behind state Attorney General Greg Abbott’s abrupt decision to refuse to give the public key information about where plants stockpiling ammonium nitrate are located. More than a year after fire at the West Fertilizer Co. ignited a huge supply of ammonium nitrate that killed 15 people, injured hundreds and destroyed homes, schools and a nursing home, the attorney general suddenly says the Texas Homeland Security Act forbids the state’s health agency from any longer releasing inventory reports on such facilities because the fertilizer might be used to make bombs.

Supposedly, this will deter terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, who legally got ahold of some 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, which he detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and destroying the structure, payback for the federal government’s role in the Branch Davidian siege near Waco in 1993.

Hemming, hawing

Ordinarily, we’d agree with the attorney general’s logic on why the location and amount of such explosives should be kept secret. The problem is the state’s dread of regulating and enforcing regulations ensuring people are safe. Even now, our state lawmakers hem and haw over whether they should regulate dangerous chemicals where people live, work and play. Amazing.

Not surprisingly, all this undermines the intent of the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act of 1986, which allows citizens to access information on what chemicals are stored and used in their neighborhoods. The act — signed into law by President Ronald Reagan — was designed to help the public be proactive after a deadly mix of gases escaped a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killing thousands. Happily, for the moment federal trumps state, allowing local residents to gain such relevant information from the Waco-McLennan County Office of Emergency Management.

This newspaper has offered common-sense ideas to prevent the tragedy of West from happening elsewhere (and another fertilizer plant warehousing ammonium nitrate in Athens, Texas, went up in flames last month, a block from the town square). These include sprinkler systems and fire walls. We also second what the fertilizer industry has vowed it will do: certify third-party inspectors to determine if such businesses are actually complying with federal and state safety regulations.

Mixing it up

Another solution state leaders might back if they’re worried about terrorists yet reluctant to let the public know about places in their vicinity that might blow up: mandating the compounding of ammonium nitrate with other substances that eliminate most risk of explosion in storage, transportation and handling, even as the ammonium nitrate retains its value as a fertilizer. (Other countries already do this.) And how about requiring such facilities to be better secured?

The attorney general’s decision is definitely at odds with growing efforts to prevent another West, including last month’s federal task force report, prompted by the 2013 explosion. It concludes that “communities need to know where hazardous chemicals are used and stored, how to assess the risks associated with those chemicals and how to ensure community preparedness for incidents that may occur.” If the state of Texas continues to balk at ensuring such plants are safe, the public needs to know more, not less, to better protect itself from devastating possibilities.

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