In the windowless room of an unmarked skyscraper here, persistent Texans who want to learn more about the risks posed by chemical plants in their communities receive their instructions: no photocopying or cellphone pictures of the provided documents, which sketch out the worst-case scenarios at individual facilities and the safety measures company officials have taken.
A sign warns those who enter the Environmental Protection Agency’s federal reading room, “You are being monitored.” The sign is superfluous: an EPA staffer remains in the room for the duration to ensure the strict rules are followed.
Federal law requires companies that keep dangerous chemicals, such as the West Fertilizer facility that exploded last month, killing 14 people, to produce a risk management plan so local residents can know what threats sit in their neighborhoods. Transparency, the theory went, would complement government regulation as concerned citizens could help size up dangers and keep an eye on their industrial neighbors.
When legislators convened last week to hold the first state hearing into the deadly explosion of the West Fertilizer Co. plant, foremost in their minds, they said, was helping Texans learn more about potentially dangerous facilities in their communities. “The intent of this committee is to try to shed light on where these facilities are located and what kind of chemicals we’re talking about,” said Rep. Joseph Pickett, chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety committee.
“The public needs to know who to go to, who to ask if there’s a plan.”
It turns out that it’s not as easy as it sounds.
The West disaster has exposed a system of information sharing that would test the commitment of even the most engaged citizens. Rural Texans have to drive hours to read the risk plans; agencies that are encouraged to collect information sometimes choose not to make it public; and information gathered and reported by the companies themselves may be either incomplete or not useful.
The difficulty in accessing even the most basic information about the chemical facilities demonstrates the conflict between informing Americans about the risks in their backyards and the need to keep such information from would-be terrorists and criminals. Those security concerns appear to be winning the tug of war.
Once upon a time, government officials agreed information about facilities that store dangerous chemicals ought to be easily available.
But a series of terrorist attacks has caused officials to rethink how easily residents should be able to get access to such information, including what chemicals certain facilities store and what the plan is if something goes terribly wrong.
As a result, securing the facilities against terrorists has become as high a priority as informing neighbors of the chemical threats in their midst. Compounding the problem is an uneven system of voluntary, decentralized local emergency protection committees that often have scant information about the facilities in their areas.
Giddings plant similar
About a year ago, the El Dorado Chemical Co. opened a fertilizer plant on the outskirts of Giddings, a city of 5,000 in Lee County, an hour’s drive east of Austin. The facility is one of 16 in the state identified by a Statesman analysis as being similar to the West Fertilizer Co. plant — a fertilizer blending facility that stores large amounts of dry ammonium nitrate, which officials say probably caused the massive explosion in West.
But interested residents in Giddings would have a hard time determining exactly what risks the plant poses. The company has filed an inventory of hazardous chemicals with state and local officials, which residents can obtain if they know whom to ask (the county’s emergency management committee and the Department of State Health Services maintain copies). That “Tier II” report shows the facility regularly stores an average of 50 to 500 tons of ammonium nitrate per day. But while fire is listed as a potential hazard of the substance, the report makes no mention of ammonium nitrate’s explosive capabilities.
Residents would also have trouble laying their hands on an emergency response plan for the facility.
Delynn Peschke, the Lee County emergency coordinator, said he did not know of any government agency outside of the company that had a copy of its own emergency response plan, which typically details what employees ought to do in case of emergency.
“I don’t have one from them,” he said. He said he does keep copies of plans for local schools, a dam and a hospital complex.
Giddings Fire Marshal David Burttschell said that since the West disaster, emergency officials have begun a review of the El Dorado facility and are planning a walk-through. He said officials are also reviewing evacuation procedures for nearby residents.
“We are still in the process of gathering info,” he said. “It’s kind of a wake-up call, unfortunately.”
EPA rules also call for the creation of local emergency planning committees for each of the 3,000 emergency planning districts across the country. Those committees are supposed to create community emergency response plans that identify facilities handling extremely hazardous substances, and outline evacuation plans on and off site, among other duties.
But the West explosion revealed that the plans can be less detailed than envisioned by federal rule makers. The McLennan County emergency plan did not specifically reference the West facility; nor does the Lee County plan yet contain specific information about the El Dorado plant, Burttschell said.
They’re not alone. Most counties, including Travis, maintain only generalized emergency information and leave planning for specific facilities to local fire departments.
Hurdles to seeing plans
In theory, the best place to learn what would happen during a worst-case scenario at a local chemical facility is in the risk management plans, maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency and produced specifically for the purpose of providing the public with information.
But getting to those plans requires dedication, time and a working knowledge of federal bureaucracy. The plans are available only at the federal reading rooms (the EPA maintains one in Dallas, and the Department of Justice has rooms in Houston, Beaumont and San Antonio), and residents can view them in person only after calling ahead to make an appointment.
It’s unclear how many people use the reading room (officials say that information is classified), but its existence is apparently not well-known — even within the agency.
“What kind of reading room?” a receptionist asked a reporter. “I’m trying to get this figured out where it is.”
Once the appointment is made, visitors must provide a driver’s license to the security guard before being escorted into the locked reading room to receive instructions: in addition to the no-photo rule, notes must be taken on a pad of paper with a No. 2 pencil.
It’s not the atmosphere envisioned by lawmakers when they passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986 in the aftermath of the Bhopal, India, poison gas disaster.
The EPA’s original thinking, according to a summary in the federal register, was that “regulatory requirements by themselves will not guarantee safety, and that providing the public with information about hazards in a community can and should lead government officials and the public to work with industry to prevent accidents.”
But the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the bombing in 1998 of the World Trade Center, both using fertilizer, swung the pendulum from transparency toward security. The FBI worried that the worst-case scenario portions of the risk management plan would end up on the Internet, allowing would-be evil-doers to select U.S. facilities to sow mayhem.
In August 1999, President Bill Clinton signed the Chemical Safety Information, Site Security and Fuels Regulatory Relief Act. It instructed the EPA and the Department of Justice to figure out a way to provide the public with access to the risk management plans in ways that would minimize the risk to national security.
Federal officials eventually set up more than 70 reading rooms across the United States, where members of the public would have access — but only during normal business hours.
The risk management plans’ usefulness is further limited by their content. While the stated goal is to prevent chemical accidents from becoming disasters, the EPA is focused on chemicals that pose a danger of accidental release. The result is that facilities aren’t required to produce contingency plans involving ammonium nitrate, a dry chemical that has high explosive possibilities but low pollution danger and so doesn’t make the EPA’s risk list.
Instead the West Fertilizer plan’s worst-case scenario consisted of an extended gas leak of anhydrous ammonia, a common fertilizer chemical that is regulated by the EPA.
Because the Giddings El Dorado facility doesn’t handle anhydrous ammonia, or any other chemical regulated by the EPA, it does not have a risk management plan, despite the tons of ammonium nitrate on hand.
Security is top concern
Critics say the security concerns have tilted the balance too far toward secrecy.
In his firm’s air pollution work, for instance, Austin environmental attorney David Frederick said he has had trouble getting information about local facilities to make an informed decision about whether neighbors might be exposed to air contaminants.
“We’ve been told this is a homeland security issue. (State officials) say, ‘This is dangerous. If evil people get it, they could make trouble.’
“This was information once freely available,” he added. “I’m suspicious about the security risk that, for all practical matters, makes the information inaccessible.”
Regardless of risk, secrecy in the name of security appears paramount at some sites.
As required by the government, the Nuclear Engineering Teaching Lab at the University of Texas, which operates a research nuclear reactor at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin, has an emergency plan approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Because of its academic purpose and small size — nuclear power plants typically operate with 1,000 times the power — the UT facility is required only to submit emergency and evacuation plans for the building that houses the reactor and not the campus or surrounding city.
But it’s not available to the public.
In an email, Tracy Tipping, safety officer for the lab, said the plan “contains information that is considered security sensitive and thus cannot be released to the public.”