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National Politics

Abbott concedes chemical data 'challenging' to get

Published:   |   Updated: July 3, 2014 at 06:35 AM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Attorney General Greg Abbott is conceding that learning where dangerous chemicals are stored in Texas is more challenging than his previous suggestion that most people can identify such facilities with a "drive around" their neighborhoods.

Under scrutiny after a May ruling by his office tightened restrictions on traditionally public information, the Republican nominee for governor is backing away from his comments earlier this week that finding out the location and quantities of chemical stockpiles remains easy for the average citizen.

Abbott told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday that he believes the state should make getting those records easier.

"The fact is, I think the information is challenging to get the way that it is currently structured," Abbott said.

Speaking with reporters a day earlier, Abbott struck a different tone: He called his office's ruling a "win-win," saying it prevents evildoers from easily finding where bomb-making ingredients are stored while the public preserves other means of learning whether they live near potentially explosive chemicals.

Last year, stockpiles of ammonium nitrate fueled a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West that killed 15 people and injured 200 others. The blast destroyed a nearby nursing home, school and damaged dozens of nearby homes in the rural town.

Private companies storing hazardous chemicals are supposed to disclose information to the public if asked under right-to-know laws. Abbott said Tuesday "you know where they are if you drive around" and that citizens can question companies themselves.

Democrat Wendy Davis, Abbott's opponent in the governor's race, has mocked that justification. Open records advocates have also criticized the ruling from Abbott's office, particularly only a year after the West explosion.

Some companies aren't disclosing information when asked, according to a newspaper report.

The Houston Chronicle said Thursday that of 20 requests the newspaper sent to companies and local emergency response agencies, two refused to release any data and two did not respond. Orica Ltd., a chemical conglomerate, was one that refused.

"I appreciate your request for information about our San Antonio site," Orica General Counsel Suzanne Thigpen told the newspaper in an email. "We believe, however, that it is in the best interest of the community that details about our site are not disclosed to the public and that sharing those details does not serve the public interest."

The Texas Department of State Health Services had long made federally mandated reports about chemical facilities available to the public upon request including in the aftermath of West.

But Abbott said it was only recently that the agency sought an opinion from his office about whether that information should be released. The ruling said it shouldn't, citing a decade-old law intended to prevent terrorism that the Legislature passed following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Abbott told AP that he wasn't aware that his office made the ruling until the decision began making headlines, but still defended it.

"It's truly a straightforward reading and analysis and application of the (Texas) Homeland Security Act. This is not a law or conclusion that I created," Abbott said.

Abbott is now proposing that local fire stations and not the state take the lead in giving the public information about dangerous chemical locations.

Fire stations are already required to receive reports from nearby facilities that store dangerous chemicals. Abbott said he believed fire stations are an easier and more obvious primary source of that information than the state's health agency.

Davis spokesman Zac Petkanas dismissed Abbott's proposal as a plan that would burden "hardworking firefighters" with requests previously handled by the state.

"Clearly, the backlash from parents over his decision to keep dangerous chemical locations secret has Greg Abbott scrambling and willing to say anything," Petankas said.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauljweber

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