Chemical plant safetyTexas limits release of information about toxic chemicals storage in the state

Published 18 June 2014

Shortly after the 2013 chemical explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, the Texas Department of State Health Services(DSHS) releasedto several media outlets its list of businesses across the state that store or handle large supplies of chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, the chemical which ignited the explosion. More recently, the department has been working to limit the release of its database of chemical inventories from the public.

Shortly after the 2013 chemical explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) released to several media outlets its list of businesses across the state that store or handle large supplies of chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, the chemical which ignited the explosion.

TheDallas Morning News now reports that the department has been working to limit the release of its database of chemical inventories from the public. Since 1 March 2014, DSHS began working with the state Attorney General (AG) to find out whether the department had to classify the information because of a 2003 state security statute involving homeland security. According to a 22 May letter, the AG, who rules on open-records cases, confirmed that DSHS was required to withhold chemical inventory data from the public.

The new ruling means that the public will have no way of obtaining inventory records from businesses handling large chemical supplies unless those businesses themselves disclose such information. A spokesman for AG Greg Abbott noted that the state’s health and safety code still allows the public to issue records requests to businesses but DSHS has no mandatory penalties for businesses that deny such requests.

Congress issued the requirement for businesses to disclose, annually, their large chemical inventory as part of the 1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, passed to help the public plan against chemical releases like the 1984 chemical accident in Bhopal, India. The information is recorded in Tier II reports, made available to first responders at all levels and the public. DSHS agrees that the Tier II reports are meant to “protect the public health and environment by providing current and accurate information about hazardous chemicals and their health effects;” and just earlier this month, a federal task force appointed by President Barack Obama after the West explosion, called for greater information-sharing and public awareness about chemical dangers.

DSHS spokeswoman Carrie Williams has said that the department will continue sharing chemical inventory records with emergency planners and first responders, but the AG’s ruling will cease disclosure of information to the public. The state security statue cited as the reason to limit public access to chemical inventory records was created post 9/11 to classify information that is “more than likely to assist in the construction or assembly of an explosive weapon or a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapon of mass destruction” or that specifies the location of “a chemical, biological agent, toxin, or radioactive material that is more than likely to be used in the construction or assembly of such a weapon.”

“Further, claiming this statute as a basis for withholding is richly ironic given the public safety disaster that has resulted from failure to make the public aware of the presence of the massive quantities of fertilizer at the West plant in the first place,” Joseph Larsen, an expert on public records and attorney for the News, wrote to the AG’s office.

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