Yet Another Chemical Plant Fire in Texas Underscores the Importance of Disclosure

On July 7, a fire broke out at a Chevron Phillips chemical plant in Port Arthur, Texas injuring two workers and frightening neighbors in the largely residential neighborhood. While the cause of the fire is still being determined, the incident highlights the danger posed by facilities that store large amounts of chemicals and the importance of providing the public with information on chemical threats in their communities. 

Sections 311 and 312 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) require facilities that handle large amounts of chemicals to report annually to state and local emergency planning committees. This information helps communities prepare for and prevent potential chemical disasters and is also made available to the public so that they can assess the potential risk of chemical exposures. Congress passed EPRCA after the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, where a gas leak at a pesticide plant killed more than 2,000 residents.

However, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a ruling in May that undermines the public’s ability to access this important information. Abbott’s ruling makes some of the information gathered under the right-to-know law, known as "Tier II reports," confidential, citing a state statute passed following the 9/11 terrorist attacks that restricts information on the location, identity, and quantity of chemicals that are “more than likely” to be employed in building a weapon of mass destruction.

By stating that information on chemicals stored in Texas communities should remain secret for security reasons, Abbott singlehandedly blocked residents’ access to data that could help them take appropriate steps to reduce risks from chemical disasters.

Abbott, who is currently running for governor of Texas, faced criticism for his ruling, including complaints from residents who want access to information about facilities in their neighborhoods. In response, Abbott stated that residents still have the right to know but that the burden now falls on them to do the investigative work. His advice? Drive around your neighborhood and ask the facilities themselves what sort of chemicals they have on hand. And if facility managers refuse to let you on site, you can always call or e-mail them.

Not only is this approach an abdication of the state agencies' responsibility to make hazard information available to the public, it is likely to be futile, as a Dallas news channel recently demonstrated. It also undermines accountability, as facilities could refuse to disclose or offer an incomplete picture of the chemicals they have on hand.

Abbott’s ruling has gained additional media attention after it was revealed that he received over $75,000 in contributions from Koch Industries and one of Charles Koch's sons following the fertilizer plant explosion at West, Texas in April 2013. Koch Industries has a fertilizer division and owns several plants in Texas. An industry spokesperson denied the link between their donations and Abbott’s ruling, but the story has been picked up by both local and national media outlets, including a 22-minute feature on The Rachel Maddow Show

Abbott’s stance on chemical secrecy is out of touch with the concerns of Texas residents, who have witnessed several chemical accidents since the disaster at West, including a fertilizer plant that burned to the ground in downtown Athens in May. Moreover, limited Texas zoning laws enable large facilities like the ones in West and Athens to exist side-by-side with residential homes, schools, and nursing homes. The Chevron plant that ignited in Port Arthur on Monday is within one mile of at least three schools and is near countless homes and an adjacent park with a playground. The fact that many Texans live next door to such potentially dangerous facilities makes public access to chemical information even more imperative.  

Leaders in Texas should be working to increase transparency of chemical facilities within their state, not blocking access to information gathered under our nation's chemical right-to-know law. Without this vital information, residents cannot protect themselves, their families, and their communities from preventable tragedies. 

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