Attorney General Greg Abbott first stirred things up by saying the state would not release information about the locations and amounts of hazardous chemicals held by private companies, reversing nearly three decades of public disclosure.
The Republican front-runner for governor then suggested Texans could “drive around” to find companies and ask them for the information, prompting his Democratic opponent, Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis, to launch a seven-city “Texans Deserve to Know” tour lambasting Abbott.
Still battling criticism over his office’s ruling restricting the state release of information about hazardous chemical stockpiles – a position that Abbott said simply applies state homeland security law – the attorney general this week told Texans they can go to the state Department of Insurance website for “general” information about the storage of the volatile chemical ammonium nitrate.
That “general information,” it turns out, consists of little more than a yes or no answer to whether ammonium nitrate may be present in a ZIP code.
“It’s useless,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, of watchdog group Public Citizen. “ZIP codes are by their nature relatively large geographic areas. The presence of ammonium nitrate on one side of the ZIP code or another doesn’t give you the information about how close it is so you can make a decision on whether you want to buy a house in the neighborhood, nor does it give you enough information to determine the relative risk based on the quantity of ammonium nitrate.”
The site has a disclaimer saying it is “for informational purposes and is not prepared for or suitable for legal, engineering, or surveying purposes. It does not represent an on-the-ground survey and represents only the approximate relative location of property boundaries. … No warranty is made by TDI regarding specific accuracy or completeness. It is the user’s responsibility to verify all data represented in the maps.”
“I would think that it would be more informative to simply post a map of Texas with all of the storage sites identified by location,” said Wendy Wagner, an environmental law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
The embedded image is included to give you an idea of what a ZIP code can look like in Texas. Doesn’t really tell you much, does it? But hey, at least it’s an answer.
Abbott’s justification for giving these increasingly convoluted non-answers is that he’s just interpreting state law. If we accept for the sake of argument that this is a reasonable interpretation of the law, then this must be a bad law. You’d think that the natural thing for a politician to do is say that maybe the law ought to be changed so that The People can have a better idea if they might be living next to a potential explosion. Greg Abbott hasn’t done that. I don’t think Greg Abbott is capable of doing that, because I don’t think Greg Abbott thinks this is a problem. Oh, he recognizes that there is a problem, because people keep asking him about this, but he thinks the problem is that people just won’t accept that they don’t need to know this information, that the corporate interest trumps theirs. So he’s going to keep saying the say thing, in however many different ways, and hope that the questions eventually stop. So I don’t think this is going away any time soon.
In the meantime, of course, this is a hanging curveball for the Davis campaign.
After several reporters tested the theory and were shown the door at various chemical facilities, Abbott acknowledged that citizens did not have easy access to the information and has since proposed a new law that would require fire departments to make the data available during normal business hours.
Although his campaign had earlier suggested that local fire departments already could give out that information, Abbott told The Texas Tribune in an interview Thursday that they were not allowed to disseminate the information.
“Right now they can’t,” he said. “That’s why my proposal is to make this information more conveniently accessible, is to allow people to seek and obtain the information from the fire marshals who already have this information.”
Abbott was asked what might prevent a terrorist from gaining access to the information through the fire marshals or the departments they work for. He said it would be up to those local officials to determine whether the people asking for it were up to no good.
“If this information can be obtained from a fire marshal, it can be done in a way where they’re going to know who it is seeking the information and they can make assessments about whether or not the people acquiring the information can pose any type of terroristic threat.”
Davis told reporters Saturday that Abbott’s proposal was “absurd.”
“He’s trying to have it both ways,” she said. “He’s trying to say that this information should not be disclosed to the public because of terrorist fears, and then on the other hand he wants to tell the public, ‘Look, here’s how you can find the information.’ It makes no sense.”
Abbott had previously claimed that making this information available to the public meant that terrorists could get it, too. Thus his plan to delegate the task of telling terrorists from ordinary folks to firefighters. I’m sure they’ll be delighted to take on that responsibility. Did I mention that there’s a much easier answer to this problem that would be obvious to a lot of people that aren’t Greg Abbott?