Texas and federal investigations eventually will uncover the extent to which West Fertilizer Co. followed the law regarding the large amounts of highly volatile ammonium nitrate stored on its property. But regardless of what authorities knew, West residents remained clueless -- by design -- about the extreme dangers they were living next to until an April 17 explosion killed 15 and devastated a 35-block area.|
A little-known section of Texas law allows agencies to withhold information they regard as confidential concerning the handling, storage and transportation of extremely hazardous chemicals. Not only can state agencies claim the right under the law to ensure the public remains in the dark, they can assert the right to not even explain why they won't release data.
After the West explosion, The Dallas Morning News and other news organizations filed requests for records identifying all entities producing, selling, storing or transferring ammonium nitrate in Texas. The Department of Homeland Security requires anyone possessing more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate -- the same chemical used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 -- to register it; West Fertilizer had up to 540,000 pounds at the plant in its last 2012 report.
The News also asked for records regarding compliance at West Fertilizer and its parent company, Adair Grain Co. Texas A&M AgriLife Research, which houses the office in charge of the documents, asserts that Texas law exempts it from disclosing what it regards as confidential data.
The written reply refusing to supply all the information sought by The News bizarrely included a blank page that contained only the heading "Section 552.101 -- Exception: Confidential Information." Merely explaining its justification apparently risked revealing the confidential information that Texas A&M AgriLife Research was trying to withhold. (The News has appealed the decision to Attorney General Greg Abbott.)
It's hard to read between the lines of a blank page, but Texas A&M AgriLife Research almost certainly wants to avoid guiding terrorists to sources of potential weapons of mass destruction. That's understandable. But in the process of keeping terrorists guessing, the agency suggests that it's OK to expose the public to untold extreme dangers in our backyards without our knowledge.
That's unacceptable. The Legislature must overhaul Section 552.101 and related provisions that award overly broad powers of secrecy to the state. A potential model for a better law is the federal Emergency Preparedness and Community Right to Know Act, which accounts for the terrorism threat yet still leans heavily in favor of public safety through public awareness.
"The public has to demand disclosure," U.S. Attorney Sarah Saldanña told this editorial board, responding to questions about the explosion. Her North Texas district doesn't include West.
Residents of West had a right to know what they were living next to and that they constantly were being exposed to potential death. For them, the effect was the same whether the blast was caused by corporate negligence or terrorist sabotage. They were denied the right to make informed choices and protect themselves from an imminent danger.