Information scarce on chemical plant blasts — just like Texas wanted


Highlights

Texas joined other states in convincing EPA not to require more public disclosure.

Obtaining public information about chemical facilities an arduous process for residents, planning groups.

Gov. Greg Abbott directed agencies not to release Tier II reports in 2014.

Even as their crippled plant in Crosby was on the verge of fire and explosion Thursday, officials with Arkema Inc. refused to release detailed information on their chemical stockpiles, which had already sparked an evacuation of surrounding houses.

Specifically, the company refused to release its Tier II report, which provides details on the amount and type of chemicals held at the plant; and its risk management plan, which is on file at the Environmental Protection Agency’s federal reading room in Dallas and Department of Justice reading rooms in Houston and San Antonio, and detail what to expect in a worst case disaster scenario.

The company is not required by state or federal law to release that information to the public. And absent a voluntary release, it’s not easy for the public to gain access to the information. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which maintains Tier II reports in the state, requires a Texas Public Information Act request (which the Statesman made Thursday) that often take ten business days to fulfill.

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Even those requests have become more difficult to obtain in recent years, following a 2014 ruling by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Gov. Greg Abbott also directed state agencies to consider the Tier II reports “confidential” because they could be used to build a weapon, the Houston Chronicle reported in 2014. (State officials say they consider requests for Tier II reports on a case by case basis.)

The emergency plan meanwhile, must be visited in person at the reading rooms, where photocopying of the document is not allowed.

So why is it so hard for the public to gain access to information that appears so fundamental to public safety? Part of the explanation rests in the state of Texas’ insistence that security and terrorism concerns should trump transparency.

Many of these same issues emerged after the West Fertilizer explosion in 2013, which killed 15 and damaged more than 150 buildings. That incident exposed the lack of publicly available information, not just for the public and press, but for local first responders and emergency planning teams.

In the aftermath of the ammonium nitrate explosion in West, former President Barack Obama ordered the EPA to come up with new rules to enhance safety at chemical facilities. New rules released in January, after years of hearings and input, included measures meant to increase the flow of information to the public.

Some of the most strenuous objections to the rules making the information more readily available came from the Lone Star State. Texas officials joined a coalition of 11 states that petitioned to freeze the Obama-era changes. The states took particular exception to the new public disclosure rules, which required companies to make information available in “user-friendly” formats in order to help residents understand the risks posed and “better prepare for emergencies.”

The public disclosure provisions, the states argued, lacked “common-sense protections for sensitive security information that could be used to harm facilities and their surrounding communities if the information falls into the wrong hands.”

The “unprecedented public disclosure” of facility information, the petition argued, would “threaten local communities and homeland security.”

In June, new EPA new administrator Scott Pruitt agreed and delayed the new rules for at least two years.

Supporters of the new rules say that today’s situation in Crosby, where Hurricane Harvey floodwaters knocked out power to refrigeration units, allowing extremely flammable organic peroxides to warm and ignite, shows the need for better information flow.

While some Harris County Sheriff’s deputies were taken to the hospital after inhaling smoke from explosions Thursday, officials said they believe the smoke is not dangerous.

“We are witnessing in real time the confusion that results from limited access to chemical safety information in an emergency situation,” wrote Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy on Thursday. “As the situation at the Crosby facility continues to unfold, the media, decision makers, law enforcement, and the public are scrambling to figure out what chemicals are on site and what public safety risks remain for nearby communities and first responders.”



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