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Greg Abbott’s Hazmat Hide-and-Seek

by Published on
Texas 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?  

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  • 1bimbo

    give it up, climate cultists.. this narrative doesn’t resonate with the average GOP republican red state voter.. you know, the millions who will vote for abbott in november

    • April D. Korbel

      1bimbo, this has nothing to do with climate change, so find another argument.
      What
      IT IS about is your right to know what your neighbor is storing in his
      yard, especially if your neighbor is an industrial facility. One of the
      problems in West was that the FIRE FIGHTERS didn’t know what kind of
      stuff was burning or in danger of burning when that facility caught
      fire. If they’d known what was there they might have started evacuations
      earlier or used a different method of fighting the fire.
      But then again, I’ve heard it said that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. Good governing strategy.

      • 1bimbo

        anyone who has a lick of sense knows a fertilizer plant can explode.. the neighborhoods were evacuated that’s why the deaths were limited to firefighters.. God rest their souls who died, however just like during 9-11 they ran in when everyone else ran away and we owe them our gratitude and their families are in our prayers.. and yes climate cultists are the same chicken little people who think we’re all going to die because there’s a nuclear plant next door or a fertilizer plant.. or a refinery.. or a propane fueling station.. or a keystone pipeline.. or a (fill in the blank).. anything moves into our neighborhoods, we figure it out quick, and emergency personnel include the facility in their training.. unlike the climate cultists, we don’t have to be told by the government on twitter or in an email alert to feel ‘safer’ about it.. those who freak out about that kinda stuff have the option of moving somewhere else..

        • Jim

          You haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. The State Fire Marshal concluded in the West case that the firefighters shouldn’t have run in, but that their decision to do so was due in part to a lack of critical information flowing to–and being appropriately–used by local first responders. The neighborhoods were not completely evacuated. “More than 75 percent of the injured people were less than 1,000 feet away from the blast. Many of the injured were nearby residents – a nursing home, apartment complex, two schools and some homes were located close to the plant.”

          In any case, the main point here is that fertilizer plants SHOULD NOT EXPLODE. Ammonium nitrate is a benign chemical except under certain conditions that are entirely preventable. West was a preventable tragedy and the loss of life was needless. You’re completely blinded by ideology.

          • 1bimbo

            ‘the state fire marshal concluded .. that the firefighters shouldn’t have run in..’ are you aware how silly that sounds? a fire marshal would not make such a statement in an investigation.. you’re blinded by an arm-chair quarterback obsession

          • Jed

            are you calling the state fire marshall silly-sounding?
            don’t you have to give up your republican card if you ridicule a public servant?

      • Humberto Martinez

        April, I applaud your efforts to inform and educate 1bimbo. But when you are trying to feed facts to a one celled amoeba, whose entire mental process is designed only to react to light or heat stimuli, your words of wisdom are completely wasted. But I would suspect that 1bimbo would be doing the accelerated version of the chicken dance if one of those plants were near the rock under which she lives and exploded. That is, she would be dancing if she spat her gum out and the feat did not last long enough to get her winded, as in that short time span she may forget how to breath and dance at the same time. Nice try, but ignorance, of the willful kind, is blind; 1bimbo doesn’t know that she is ignorant. Thus she will remain so. She is one bimbo.

  • Bandara Carlos

    1bimbo,

    So with your connections how much in cash, gifts, Pac money,
    and advertising TV time did Abbott get not to investigate and not to prosecute from
    the Koch family? What’s the price, to
    sell out the citizens of Texas and West, Texas victims of the
    West explosion?

    You know if you answer truthfully so you can keep your job
    as a paid blogger.