I mean, what are a few fiery explosions among friends?
Members of the state House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee have been struggling for several months over how to respond to last year’s massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. that killed 15 and devastated the nearby city of West.
On Tuesday, committee Chairman Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, unveiled a draft bill that would require businesses to store ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound used in fertilizer, in noncombustible buildings or in buildings equipped with a sprinkler system.
Affected businesses would have three years to comply, though new facilities would have to meet the heightened standard immediately, Pickett said.
The bill also would open the facilities to inspections by all certified firefighters to verify safe storage and to create a strategy on fighting potential fires. Pickett said the provision was in response to a state law that allows inspections only by paid firefighters.
“Over 70 percent of firefighters in Texas are volunteers … so 70 percent of our first responders do not have that authority,” he said.
Most controversially, Pickett’s proposal would require storage facilities to meet standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit that develops research-based fire codes.
Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, said the bill includes fire standards that are too complex for small businesses to navigate.
“I count no less than 10 different state and federal codes, standards and regulations listed in this bill, some of which I have a problem with,” he said. “We may be making things a little too complex.”
Rep. George Lavender, R-Texarkana, said the proposal was overkill, and he recommended letting businesses opt out of bill’s provisions if they agree to store ammonium nitrate in a noncombustible building and allow fire inspectors to conduct periodic checks.
“I think the bill as written would put a lot of people out of business,” he said. “I recognize the tragedies that we’ve had, and we certainly need to avoid that in the future, but there is a lot of stuff in here that is bad for the industry.”
Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, said he was concerned about shifting unaffordable costs onto an industry “that has operated safely for decades.”
“It seems like we’re out there with kind of a power grab,” Flynn said.
Pickett replied that he could not live with himself if he didn’t try to improve safety around the facilities.
“I think, Dan, that if we do nothing, we’ll have another West disaster,” Pickett said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. If I have an ammonium nitrate facility, with the possibility of a catastrophic situation, I am going to be asking them to spend some money.”
The Chron story has more of the same in this vein. I mean, come on, who in their right minds could possibly think that requiring highly combustible materials to be stored in non-combustible buildings is a good idea? How could these poor businesses possibly be expected to survive if we made them do that?
Well, at least we have the right to know where the hazardous material is, right? Surely the government will require that the places that could blow sky high any minute tell us about that possibility, right? Wrong.
Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, under fire for blocking public access to state records documenting the location of dangerous chemicals, said Texans still have a right to find out where the substances are stored — as long as they know which companies to ask.
“You know where they are if you drive around,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. You can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, well, we do have chemicals or we don’t have chemicals, and if they do, they tell which ones they have.”
In a recently released decision by his office, Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, said government entities can withhold the state records — in so-called Tier II reports — of dangerous chemical locations. The reports contain an inventory of hazardous chemicals.
But Abbott said homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals could simply ask the companies near their homes what substances are kept on site.
Collected under the federal Community Right to Know Act, the information was made available upon request by the state for decades to homeowners, the media or anyone else who wanted to know where dangerous chemicals were stored. But, as WFAA-TV recently reported, the Texas Department of State Health Services will no longer release the information because of the attorney general’s ruling.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got plenty of spare time in my day to drive around to every chemical facility in Houston and ask them about what hazardous and explosive materials they have, which I’m sure they’ll be delighted to tell me all about. Why, I’ve got so much free time I may just drive around to chemical plants that aren’t in my area and ask them about this. Thanks for the great suggestion for how to spend my time, Greg Abbott! I’m sure the terrorists that you’re hoping to hide this information from are thinking the same thing, too.
Of course, you know the real reason why Greg Abbott issued this opinion:
Guess who Greg Abbott got $25,000 from 5 months after the West ammonium nitrate explosion? Pres of Koch Fertilizer.Wayne Slater, 7/2/14
Five months after an ammonium nitrate explosion that killed 15 people in West, Attorney General Greg Abbott received a $25,000 contribution from a first-time donor to his political campaigns — the head of Koch Industries’ fertilizer division.
The donor, Chase Koch, is the son of one of the billionaire brothers atop Koch Industries’ politically influential business empire.
Abbott, who has since been criticized for allowing Texas chemical facilities to keep secret the contents of their plants, received more than $75,000 from Koch interests after the April 2013 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. storage and distribution facility, campaign finance records filed with the state showed.
For decades, Texans wanting to know about companies keeping such chemicals could find out from the state.
But Abbott has said that those records are closed. And the state agency that collects and maintains information on large chemical supplies has stopped sharing it with the public.
Abbott contends his opinion, issued in May, strikes a balance. On Tuesday, he called it a “win-win” that keeps information about large chemical inventories off the website of the Department of State Health Services but doesn’t forbid homeowners from asking companies in their neighborhoods what they store.
He said companies should respond within 10 days, but it’s not clear what penalties, if any, private companies face if they decline to tell a member of the public what chemicals are on site.
In blocking public access to the information, Abbott cited a state security statute passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A Davis aide rebuked Abbott for the remarks.
“The only thing more outrageous than Greg Abbott keeping the location of chemical facilities secret is telling Texas parents they literally need to go door to door in order to find out if their child’s school is in the blast radius of dangerous explosives,” said spokesman Zac Petkanas. “Parents have a right to know whether their kids are playing hopscotch next door to the type of facility that exploded in West.”
Chase Koch donated $25,000 in September, shortly after his father, Koch board chairman Charles Koch, also gave $25,000. The Koch Industries political committee sent Abbott $25,000 in November.
In addition, the company flew Abbott on a company jet in August to an invitation-only gathering in New Mexico that offered wealthy donors an opportunity to meet and mingle with GOP elected officials and leaders of conservative groups supporting the Koch agenda of less government regulation and disclosure.
In the Texas Legislature, Koch lobbyists are on record advocating repeal of notification requirements regarding company pipeline construction and discontinuing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s compliance history program.
Remember when Greg Abbott made ethics reform a key component of his campaign? Boy, those were the days. Burka has more.
UPDATE: Looks like Abbott realized he stepped in it.
Attorney General Greg Abbott this week said private companies must release information about their hazardous chemical stockpiles, weeks after his office ruled the same information no longer would be available from state agencies.
“Homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals would simply ask the companies what substances are kept on site,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday, adding, “And if they do, they tell which ones they have.”
Not everyone agrees with Abbott’s reading of the law, however.
Requests by the Houston Chronicle to 20 companies and local emergency response agencies last month produced mixed results: Half of the companies and agencies sent extensive data on the hazardous chemicals they held on site, known as Tier II reports; five sent basic chemical inventories that often did not include amounts or other details; one asked for more information; two refused to release any data; and two did not respond.
Tom “Smitty” Smith, the Texas head of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said “this is a huge campaign issue and should be.”
“Other former attorneys general would have stood up for the citizens,” Smith said. “The process Abbott has now created is almost impossible for the average citizen that doesn’t have the Houston Chronicle’s name to back them up.”
Abbott acknowledged to the Associated Press on Wednesday that the process may be more difficult than he originally had proposed, calling it “challenging” to get chemical facility information.
Abbott’s statements also could encounter opposition from the business community.
Attorney General spokesman Jerry Strickland said any private company that denied the Chronicle’s requests was providing the public with “misinformation” and could face unspecified “penalties.”
“Chemical companies have an obligation under the Community Right-to-Know Act to disclose that information to the general public within 10 days,” Strickland said in a statement to the Chronicle. “Private companies are required to provide the information. Any failure (to) do to so carries with it penalties to be assessed by the Department of State Health Services.”
Strickland said Abbott’s office was reaching out to the Texas Ag Industries Association, a trade group to which Orica does not belong, to ensure its members understand the law. TAIA President Donnie Dippel said he would urge his members to comply with the law.
Strickland reiterated that the refused information requests were not Abbott’s choice, but what was required under state law.”
Industry lawyer and lobbyist Pam Giblin said the issue was not that cut and dried.
“If the government doesn’t have to release it, how in the world does a private company get this disclosure obligation thrust on it?” Giblin asked, adding she sees possible litigation on the horizon. “There are a lot of homeland security issues. … I think you’re bound to see some court tests because this just doesn’t make sense.”
What would make sense would be for the state’s top law enforcement official to ensure that this information is made available to the public by the government. Too bad Greg Abbott is answering to a higher power than that.