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Law Allowed Regulators to Keep West, Texas Residents Clueless of Dangers

According to a recent editorial in the Dallas Morning News, West residents were clueless about the extreme dangers they were living next to until an April 17 explosion killed 15 and devastated a 35-block area. This was not an accident this information was never shared, but on purpose. 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 that the public remains in the dark, they can assert the right to not even explain why they will not 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. 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 is 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 is understandable. But in the process of keeping terrorists guessing, the agency suggests that it is OK to expose the public to untold extreme dangers in our backyards without our knowledge.

"The public has to demand disclosure," U.S. Attorney Sarah Saldaña 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 were constantly 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.

If you or someone you know have been seriously injured as a result of the fertilizer plant explosion in Waco, contact the attorneys at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-222-7211 or 1-800-870-9584.

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