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.
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.
After the state, in response to media requests for more information about other fertilizer plant sites, invoked a little-known “confidential information” law that gives wide secrecy discretion to government officials, the Dallas Morning News’ editorial board wrote that avoiding tipping off potential terrorists is understandable, “[b]ut in the process of keeping terrorists guessing, [the state] denied the right [of West residents] to make informed choices and protect themselves from imminent danger.”
Historians note that the 1970s were a high point for national activism to release information about chemical storehouses and pollution, peaking with the 1986 “right-to-know” act. The Texas Disaster Act of 1975 also sided with the public’s right to know about potential backyard dangers, officials testified on Wednesday.
But despite those laws and given dwindling activism, says Mr. Loomis, the trend in government has been toward restricting the dissemination of information to the public, a reticence only boosted by the terror attacks of 9/11. For the most part, he says, the public has remained relatively nonplused, meaning that it’s become easier for public officials to at best ignore, or at worst demonize, newspapers and other media for disseminating sensitive information.
Critics call such tendencies toward secrecy a callous calculation that assumes that while people are entrusted to elect politicians who appoint bureaucrats and make policy, they have neither the inclination nor ability to properly handle critical information.
“The lack of faith [by government officials] in the American people’s ability to process information doesn’t quite fit democracy, you know?” says Texas native Glenn Smith, the author of “The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction” and consulting manager at the Texas Progress Council, a progressive think tank in Austin.
“If the people in the community of West had all the information about the dangers, and knew ahead of time … how big an explosion it could cause, they may have demanded preventive steps be taken,” he says. “But they didn’t know. [Authorities] are in essence saying that they’re not giving information to protect residents, that giving them information would be a greater risk – it’s preposterous.”
On the other hand, some experts doubt whether helping Americans pinpoint exactly where companies store volatile compounds in their neighborhoods would really change behavior of citizens. If so, governments like the state of Texas may be in the right to err on the side of caution when publicly discussing issues like the locations of chemical stockpiles.
“The way to sort this out is to look at whether each individual should be making their own decision [based on widely available] information or whether, if government limits access to the information, does it then have the commensurate obligation to be even surer that the plants are safe?” says Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University and author of “How Patriotic is the Patriot Act?” which explores the balance between rights and security in the post-9/11 era.
“Personally, when there’s increased risk, I’d much rather rely on public authorities to protect me than give me [sensitive] information,” says Mr. Etzioni. “I’m not claiming the government is competent; I’m claiming that government is less incompetent than I am.”