Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate, has come under fire this week for suggesting that citizens get information about the storage of hazardous chemicals in Texas not from state officials but from the businesses that house them. His office ruled in May that government entities can withhold the locations of dangerous chemicals listed in state records — so-called Tier II reports — to protect the public from terrorism or other threats.
Abbott softened his tone on Wednesday, telling the Associated Press that the situation was "challenging," and that while he defended the ruling, he was not personally responsible for it.
That statement to the AP — that the ruling was "not a law or conclusion that I created" — was different from the "I ruled" phrase Abbott used on Tuesday, where he seemed to take credit for the decision.
In those same Tuesday remarks, Abbott also used the town of West, where a fertilizer depot explosion killed more than a dozen people last year, as an example of how Texans could seek information about hazardous chemicals in the aftermath of the AG ruling. The mayor of West has criticized the ruling, saying the explosion demonstrated there was "a lack of knowledge of where these chemicals are stored."
Below are Abbott’s full remarks from Tuesday's press conference, in response to questions about hazardous chemical storage:
Q. General, why did you rule that people shouldn’t be able to see the dangerous chemicals in their communities?
A. Very important to understand: I did not rule that. If you read the opinion, you’ll find that there are two rulings in there. Under the Communities Right to Know Act, I ruled that under that law everyone in the state of Texas has a right to see any chemical held by any plant anywhere in the state of Texas, and they have a right to get that information within 10 days."
In a separate statute under the Texas Homeland Protection law, I ruled that information that is gathered by the state of Texas, if it contains information that falls in the category of homeland security, that type of information cannot be received by the public. There is a clear reason why that law exists, that was demonstrated in Austin, Texas, last week, and that is because we have ongoing terroristic activity here in central Texas.
My office worked with federal authorities and others to arrest two terrorists who were working on schemes that could have proven dangerous for people here as well as dangerous for people in other areas. And anyone is mistaken to think that these are the only examples of terrorism; these are just the most recent examples of terrorists working actively here in Texas."
So the ruling was a win-win. It allowed the state of Texas to not disclose information that could make it more risky for the state of Texas by exposing information to terrorists, but it also upheld the law that insures that every single mom and dad, every single parent, every single teacher, every single business owner, every single homeowner, every single person in the state of Texas will have access to information stored in any plant in their neighborhood.
Q. General, on the Tier II question … what information is available? What can we see, and how do we do that?
A. You, as a reporter, you, as a community member of the state, can go to any chemical facility in the entire state of Texas and say, "Identify for me all chemicals you have on your facility," and you are entitled to get that information within 10 days.
Q. Do you have to know where the facility is?
A. Well, it’s helpful. I mean, you wouldn’t just want to say, "Well, I wonder if there’s one up in Andrews, Texas." You know where they are, if you drive around. Let’s bear this down. If you’re living in West, Texas, you know that there is some facility there and you have the right to ask the people in West, Texas, "Hey, what chemicals do you have in there?" Same thing as you drive from here back to your office, you may see any kind of plant or facility, you don’t have to know whether or not they do or do not have anything in there whatsoever, you can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals, you can ask them if they do, and they can tell you, "Well, we do have chemicals" or "we don’t have chemicals," and if they do, they tell which ones they have.
Q. So we ask the facility, not (the Department of State Health Services)?
A. Right. That’s the way that law works to protect homeland security. DSHS has the right to not disclose this information for homeland security purposes. However, to ensure that those living in neighborhoods, those who live in areas where they want to make sure that things are safe, or those who are thinking about buying a home, when you buy a home you don’t just target on the internet and move in the next day, you drive around the neighborhood. You’re going to know everything that exists in the neighborhood in which you move, and you have the right to inquire before you move in there, every single facility along the way, whether or not they’re storing any kind of chemical whatsoever.
Q. You can just walk on their private property and say, "I have a right to be on your private property and ask you what you have?"
… seconds later
Just to make clear, I mean, you may not be able to walk on private property, but you can send an email or letter or notice to anyone who owns any kind of private property or facility saying that under the Community Right to Know law, you need to tell me within 10 days what chemicals you have, so it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are you are, you’re obligated under that law to respond.
Jay Root contributed reporting.