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Fertilizer plant blast: Does post-9/11 secrecy make your life riskier?

Following the fertilizer plant blast, Texas cited terror concerns in withholding information on dangerous chemicals. Some say that secrecy deprives citizens of the ability to make decisions about their safety.

By Staff Writer / May 3, 2013

Work continues at the site of the April 17 fertilizer plant explosion in the small central Texas town of West, April 23.

Charlie Riedel/AP

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Atlanta

Before an ammonium nitrate tank blew up in the small central Texas town of West on April 17, with a blast so powerful it registered a 2.1 on the Richter scale, some residents said they were aware of possible dangers at the plant, while others said they had absolutely no idea that something could go so horribly wrong.

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Two days after the Boston Marathon bombings, a fire at the West Fertilizer Company ignited a chemical tank, sparking a massive explosion that killed 15 people – 12 of them first responders – hurt hundreds, leveled a retirement home, and damaged a school and dozens of homes.

Whether or not widely available information about what could happen at the plant would have made a difference in how the town of West, over decades, snuggled homes and schools up to the facility’s perimeter is perhaps impossible to answer – especially as, some economists have found, Americans tend to downplay the risk from high-risk jobs and living next to dangerous industries.

But attempts by Texas newspapers in the wake of the explosion to get more detailed information from the state about other local caches of ammonium nitrate have gone unanswered. The state cited terror-related secrecy concerns in refusing to divulge that information.

This raises a stark post-9/11 question: If, in the name of hiding sensitive information from terrorists, citizens are to be kept in the dark about hazardous materials and other potential dangers in their backyard, should not the state then take responsibility for ensuring that those products are well-regulated and under lock and key?

“I think what I worry about is that this word, terrorism, allows states, industry, others who are opposed on more broad grounds to right-to-know ideas, it gives them cover for what they would have opposed anyway,” says Erik Loomis, a historian at the University of Rhode Island who has closely followed the aftermath of the West disaster.

Conversely, he says, “If you say ammonium nitrate is so extremely dangerous that we have to make sure terrorists can never touch this, that probably means [these plants] should be treated more like a nuclear facility and less [like] some industry that’s literally in people’s backyard.”

At a Texas House hearing Wednesday with a cadre of Texas regulators – including heads of public safety, environmental quality, the insurance commission, and the state chemistry lab – Rep. Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat and chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, found himself butting up against the same dilemma as he tried to extrapolate how effectively the state regulated some 44 similar fertilizer plants scattered across Texas’ great expanse.

More specifically, Mr. Pickett wanted to know whether terror-age realities had blunted right-to-know protections enshrined in the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, passed by Congress in 1986. That law attempted to balance regulatory reporting and concerns about trade secrets with the ability of citizens to easily tap into databases to learn about the potential dangers in their community.

“What’s the conflict from 1986 versus 9/11, as far as that information?” he asked before underscoring what he described as an elusive “balance” between the intent of the 1986 law and more immediate security considerations in the post-9/11 era.

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