Now, with the Texas Legislative Session underway, the Houston Chronicle reports that some state lawmakers are filing bills to require more disclosure of hazardous chemicals, although none require that information be shared with the public. Three similar bills have been filed: HB 417 by Rep. Pickett, HB 942 by Rep. Kacal, and SB 528 by Sen. Birdwell. All three bills focus on facilities housing ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical that was the cause of the West, Texas explosion and fire that killed 15 people in April 2013. Both Rep. Kacal’s and Sen. Birdwell’s districts include West, TX.
These bills would move Texas in the right direction toward more oversight of hazardous chemical use and storage. It might not surprise you to learn that Texas is home to more dangerous chemical facilities than any other state in the nation. According to the Congressional Research Service, there are 12,440 high-risk chemical plants nationwide. 89 of those facilities present a worst case scenario that threatens the lives of more than one million people; 33 of those facilities are in Texas. There are 384 facilities nationwide that put at least 100,000 people at risk, with nearly 100 of those in Texas.
Ammonium nitrate has received a fair share of attention since the West, Texas tragedy, but it is by no means the only chemical that poses catastrophic risk in Texas. Of the dozens of facilities in Texas that pose such risk, many of them are delinquent on the Tier II chemical reporting program. Bills that seek to increase reporting of hazardous chemicals should target all such facilities, not just those that house ammonium nitrate.
At the federal level, the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) establishes requirements for industry disclosure and public access to information about use and storage of hazardous chemicals. As the state with the most covered facilities, Texas should be doing more than any other state to enact both the letter and spirit of EPCRA. Telling Texans to “drive around” and get this information themselves falls far short of this ideal.
A chemical safety and security working group established by Presidenty Obama in the wake of the West, Texas disaster held public listening session across the nation, including two in Texas, on this very issue. But the recommendations of the working group were slow to come, and the Obama administration has done little to act on them since their release.
Although legislation proposed at the state level is encouraging, a strong mandate from the federal government to act might do more to prompt Texas to act to inform its citizens about the risks posed by hazardous chemical use and storage.