Davis Announces Proposal to Reverse Greg Abbott’s Ruling Which Keeps Dangerous Chemical Locations Secret From Parents

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Fort Worth, TX: Wendy Davis today announced her proposal to work with legislators, communities, and first responders to strengthen the Texas Community Right to Know Act to clarify that the state must make Tier II chemical information available to the public. During her first week in office, Davis will designate this an emergency legislative item, which will allow the legislature to act on this matter in the first 60 days.“Communities deserve to know if there are explosive chemical stockpiles blocks away from their schools, day cares, nursing homes and grocery stories – especially after the tragedy in West, Texas,” said Davis. “If Attorney General Greg Abbott refuses to reverse his dangerous ruling to keep chemical locations secret from parents, we will have to do it for him. As governor, I will declare this issue an emergency item and call on the legislature to roll back Greg Abbott’s decision to prioritize the interests of chemical company insiders at the expense of hardworking Texans.”

The proposal:

The simplest and quickest option to ensure Texans can access information regarding dangerous chemicals would be for Greg Abbott to reverse himself on his ruling keeping Texans in the dark. However, in the absence of Greg Abbott reversing his erroneous and donor-driven ruling himself, as governor, Wendy Davis will:
Force legislative consideration of dangerous chemical transparency by designating this issue as an emergency item for priority consideration by the Texas Legislature within the first sixty days of the session.
Work with the legislature and first responders to strengthen the Texas Community Right to Know Act to clarify that the state must make Tier II information available to the public, and sign that clarification into law.
Work with legislators, first responders and communities to develop a simple, user-friendly system to make this vital information publicly available.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to- Know Act in order to keep the public informed about dangerous chemicals in facilities near their communities. Since then, states have been required to disclose information on dangerous chemicals at individual facilities in order to help keep the public safe. Greg Abbott, however, put Texans’ safety in jeopardy when he ruled to make the locations of dangerous chemicals secret, including those within walking distance of school and families across the state – information that had been previously available to public.

Editorial: Abbott steps in it on chemicals issue [Dallas Morning News, 7.4.14]

Boy, did Attorney General Greg Abbott step in it.

The occasion was Abbott’s explanation for how Texans could find out about volatile chemicals in their neighborhoods, in the wake of a ruling by his office restricting access to records on chemical inventories.

“Drive around,” was the AG’s advice. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not.”

That simple? To test Abbott’s “just ask” advice, a WFAA-TV news crew visited two Dallas plants to inquire about the chemicals on hand. The response from one place was the corporate runaround. The response from the other sounded like “get lost.”

If a TV reporter can’t extract information from a nearby business owner, where does that leave everyday residents? The answer: potentially vulnerable.

Abbott also cited a portion of the Texas Health and Safety Code that requires chemical facilities to produce information in writing, upon request. But how effective that provision is for everyday citizens is unclear.

That’s a sorry come-about, as this state tries to learn from last year’s deadly fertilizer disaster in West and keep data available to Texans who deserve to know about danger around the corner.

For decades, information about chemical stockpiles was available under the federal Community Right to Know Act, passed after a toxic cloud from a pesticide plant killed thousands in Bhopal, India. Then came 9/11 and passage of a 2003 state law that tightened up potential release of information on substances that could end up in a bomb.

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. To say the least.

What he didn’t say – and Texans should know – is that the State Fire Marshal’s Office in the Texas Department of Insurance maintains an online search tool where people can inquire, by ZIP code, about stockpiles of ammonium nitrate, the chemical that ignited and killed 15 in West. The tool gives out limited information, but it’s a start.

Now in light of the AG’s ruling, state lawmakers need to find an acceptable balance between competing interests: the public’s right to know vs. keeping dangerous chemicals from dangerous people.

The chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, unveiled a bill last week to stiffen regulation of ammonium nitrate. The pushback from GOP lawmakers indicated it could have a rough way to go.

This newspaper has been consistently clear what regulation of dangerous chemicals should look like: The law should demand that inventories be secure, responsibly insured and not in the midst of neighborhoods. And their presence should not be a mystery to people.

VOLATILE CHEMICAL INFO

Two options are available in Texas to help residents learn whether chemical stockpiles are nearby:

Online search tool maintained by the State Fire Marshal’s Office tdi.texas.gov/fire/fman.html

Written request through the Texas Health and Safety Code, which reads:

Sec. 505.007 Direct citizen access to information (a) Except as otherwise provided … a person may request in writing copies of the facility’s existing workplace chemical list for community right-to-know purposes. (b) Except as otherwise provided … any facility covered by this chapter shall furnish or mail, within 10 working days of the date of receipt of a request under subsection (a), either a copy of the facility’s existing workplace chemical list or a modified version of the most recent tier two form using a 500-pound threshold.