Greg Abbott’s Hazmat Hide-and-Seek

Attorney General Greg Abbott.
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Texas Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott gave the media a great gift this summer when he opened his mouth—and then quickly attempted to shut it—about his ruling on how much information companies that handle hazardous chemicals have to share with the public.

On May 22, Abbott ruled that the general public has no right to Tier II chemical inventories, which could be “likely to assist in the construction of an explosive weapon.” In July, responding to a growing outcry about the ruling, which seemed to contradict federal “right to know” laws, Abbott backpedaled, sort of, telling reporters that any Texan “can go to any chemical facility in the entire state of Texas and say, ‘Identify for me all chemicals you have on your facility,’ and you are entitled to get that information within 10 days.”

How would folks know where those facilities might be? “You know where they are, if you drive around,” Abbott said.

The problem with suggesting that folks “drive around” poking their noses into the dealings of chemical companies and fertilizer manufacturers is that, well, folks are probably going to do it. Especially if they get to bring a camera crew along. Abbott inadvertently issued the open invitation of every TV news producer’s dreams: confrontation with corporate baddies, film at 11.  

Indeed, Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA has been on the story since reporters there broke the news of Abbott’s ruling in June, having asked the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) about Tier II chemicals housed at a storage facility in Athens that caught fire in late May. DSHS responded that it could make those inventories available only to first responders and emergency officials, per Abbott’s May 22 ruling.

Just our trusty AG doing his part to fight the terrorisms.

The Dallas Morning News followed up in July, suggesting an alternative to the AG’s bomb-thwarting reasoning: Perhaps the ruling had more to do with a $25,000 contribution to Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign from the head of Koch Industries’ fertilizer division—a first-time contribution delivered five months after the West fertilizer explosion that killed 15 people and injured 200 more in April 2013.

We don’t know for sure whether terrorists could use information about Tier II chemicals to make explosives. What we do know for certain is that Texas facilities where Tier II chemicals are stored—and where they are under-regulated, which more or less means “in Texas”—pose a significant and demonstrated threat to public safety.

Without chemical inventories in hand, the public—and the media, acting as the public’s advocate—have no means by which to hold corporate entities and government agencies accountable for harm done. And history shows that harm will inevitably be done.

But in this case, knowledge alone isn’t necessarily power. Without a robust regulatory system, Texans can do little more than try to steer their families, schools, nursing homes, businesses and hospitals clear of these potential powder kegs—if they have the means to do so. For folks who cannot afford to move out of the line of fire or who lack the political or financial capital to lobby decision-makers for change—say, by making $25,000 donations to candidates—there may be little to do besides pray that the local fertilizer plant keeps a lid on it, as it were.

The media must and should be empowered to act as watchdog on behalf of those whose concerns would otherwise go ignored by the powers that be, and perhaps more important, by the powers that fund the powers that be. You could say Abbott’s ruling has backfired, leading more Texans than ever to get interested in the goings-on at their local chemical storehouse. 

But while WFAA’s reporting on the availability of Tier II chemical information has certainly been dogged, and makes compelling TV for those of us who are able to work through the second-hand embarrassment that comes from watching grown adults wilt in front of television reporters, it’s not particularly useful for those members of the public who need results more than ratings.

The best practical reporting on the Abbott/chemical kerfuffle has come from the Houston Chronicle’s Austin bureau reporter, Lauren McGaughy, who dryly detailed, in just a few hundred words, the outright rigmarole that Texans must now go through to obtain Tier II reports directly from chemical facilities—after, that is, they’ve driven around and found them. 

Road trip, anyone?  

Andrea Grimes writes the monthly State of the Media column for the Observer. She is the former editor of Eater Austin and a senior political reporter for RH Reality Check.

Published at 1:04 pm CST
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