Abbott now sees challenges over data on chemicals

PAUL J. WEBER, Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Attorney General Greg Abbott conceded Wednesday that getting information about dangerous chemicals in Texas is “challenging,” after earlier suggesting that people can easily learn whether they live near places that store potentially explosive substances.

Abbott, the Republican nominee for governor, has faced criticism from Democratic opponent Wendy Davis and open records advocates since his office ruled in May that locations of some facilities storing dangerous chemicals such as ammonium nitrate remain confidential.

A stockpile of ammonium nitrate fueled a massive explosion in West last year that killed 15 people and injured 200 others. The substance is widely used in agricultural fertilizers and is stored in facilities around Texas.

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Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Abbott called the ruling by his office a “win-win” — saying people know where the places are if they “drive around” and then ask companies whether they have chemicals under federal right-to-know laws.

But Abbott said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday that he now wants to make it simpler for the public to get the information.

“The fact is, I think the information is challenging to get the way that it is currently structured,” 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.

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State health officials had long made those addresses available upon request. That began changing after the ruling from Abbott’s office that cited a decade-old law intended to prevent terrorism.

Fire stations are already required to receive federally-mandated reports from nearby facilities that store dangerous chemicals. Abbott said he believed fire stations were an easier and more obvious primary source of that information for the public than the Department of State Health Services.

Abbott told AP that he wasn’t aware that his office made the ruling until the decision began making headlines, but he defended it as the correct decision under the law.

“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.

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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.

Attention on the ruling mounted after Dallas television station WFAA tried to obtain information about a fertilizer plant in East Texas that caught fire in May.

Following the West tragedy, the state gave several media outlets a list of all facilities in Texas that store large quantities of ammonium nitrate.