AP Probe: Keeping Explosive Chemicals Secret May Not Make People Safer

June 5, 2013

Aftershocks of the April 17, 2013, ammonium nitrate explosion in West, Texas, continue — including investigations by news organizations as well as state and federal agencies. A major multistate investigative project by the Associated Press noted: "Around the country, hundreds of buildings like the one in West store some type of ammonium nitrate. They sit in quiet fields and by riverside docks, in business districts and around the corner from schools, hospitals and day care centers."

The AP could only get data for 28 of the 50 states, but within those states it found that more than 600,000 people live within a typical blast zone and more had family in schools and hospitals within one. Yet few seemed to know of the hazards they faced.

The chemical industry and homeland security officials have for years encouraged secrecy about chemical hazards — even in cases where the law requires disclosure — in the name of withholding a "roadmap for terrorists."

Yet the explosion in Texas suggests that the mere presence of the hazardous chemicals themselves — and widespread ignorance of the threats they pose — may be more of a danger than hypothetical terrorists. Ten of the 15 dead in West were firefighters who may not have known or understood the ammonium nitrate hazard. Townspeople probably did not understand how unwise it was to have a school or senior home near the fertilizer plant.

As the AP article put it: "information intended to keep people safe is concealed in the name of keeping people safe."

Section 312 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act not only requires facilities storing hazmats in amounts above certain threshholds to submit an inventory annually, but it also requires this information to be made public through local emergency response agencies.