The image above, showing a fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN) facility loitering as close as 529 ft. from the edge of an unidentified school campus, appeared on slide 13 of a US Chemical Safety Board presentation in Waco last week. But where is this place? And where are the other Texas locations where similar facilities storing large quantities of ammonium nitrate are sited within half a mile of a school? The Board warns that there are 18 such cozy-ups in Texas, but doesn’t identify their locations — even the image shown above, grabbed from Google Earth and outlined, omits any street labels.
The Waco presentation talked through the safety agency’s recently released findings on the 2013 explosion in West, Texas (located in Central Texas). A school and a nursing home were among the nearby buildings that received serious damage from the fertilizer blast, which killed 15 people and injured hundreds; the safety board report indicates that holes in that city’s zoning laws allowed the storage facility to be slowly grandfathered into a residential area.
Finding out where chemical storage facilities are located, and what they store, is now more of a fun guessing game than it was before the West explosion: In 2014, then-attorney-general-now-governor Greg Abbott’s office ruled that state Tier II data, which documents hazardous chemical storage at private facilities, would no longer be accessible to the public. But those open records weren’t really necessary, not if you’re really trying to find the facilities: “You know where they are, if you drive around,” Abbott told reporters.
Abbott tried to clarify the ruling in the wake of a backlash over the perceived breach of community right-to-know laws, saying that not releasing the data was a matter of Homeland Protection. But citizens can still personally “go to any chemical facility in the entire state of Texas and say, ‘Identify for me all chemicals you have on your facility,’ and [they] are entitled to get that information within 10 days,” he said.
The Houston Chronicle, along with a number of other media outlets, decided to give that a go: the Chronicle contacted 20 companies in June of 2014, requesting their chemical storage data. Most of the companies sent their Tier II reports, while 5 sent a simpler chemical inventory list; 2 (including the ChemQuest facility in Pasadena) did not respond, and 1 waited 11 days to ask for the inquiry to be resubmitted.
Here’s a dramatically-soundtracked video summary of the safety board’s report:
- Public Meeting Presentation (January 28, 2016) [USCSB]
- West Fertilizer Explosion and Fire [USCSB]
- Abbott says companies must release chemical info but state does not [Houston Chronicle]
- Abbott: Ask Chemical Plants What’s Inside [Texas Tribune]
Photo of unidentified Texas school near an FGAN storage facility: USCSB