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Where openness can save lives

Author : Alan Franck, Editor, Hazardex

29 June 2018

Earlier this year, a worker dragging his foot along a factory floor sparked an explosion at a Texas chemical plant that killed one and injured another two. Fears of further explosions and toxic chemical fumes prevented fire crews from battling the ensuing blaze and a large part of the Tri-Chem Industries plant in Cresson, about 80 kilometers southwest of Dallas, burned to the ground.

With the plant still ablaze and a toxic haze hanging over the area, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency responsible for coordinating the cleanup, declined to produce a list of the plant's on-site chemicals, telling a reporter to file a public information request.

In recent years, Texas leaders have made it increasingly difficult for the public to find out about the chemicals manufactured and stored at such plants. After a fertiliser plant explosion in the city of West, Texas, killed 15 people in 2013, Greg Abbott, who was then attorney general and is now governor, ruled that state agencies could withhold information about hazardous chemicals because of "ongoing terroristic activity."

This happened in Cresson as well as in Houston last August when Hurricane Harvey came to call and flooded the Arkema chemical plant, also covering a whole neighbourhood in poisonous fumes that local authorities refused to identify.

So, the official message is: we can’t tell you what poisons you’re breathing right now as, if we did, the terrorists would win. But terrorists didn’t blow up an entire town - an unregulated fertiliser plant did.

After each of these incidents the number of people claiming their health has been wrecked by toxic fumes rises higher. It seems likely that, if this absurd situation continues, deregulation will kill and injure far more people across the country than terrorists ever will.

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