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Point Austin: Drive-By Government

To be read while waiting for the next explosion

By Michael King, Fri., July 18, 2014

Attorney General (and gubernatorial candidate) Greg Abbott certainly deserves all the flack he's been receiving in recent weeks, after he suggested that if Texans are concerned about industrial stockpiles of dangerous chemicals, all they need to do is ask nearby companies if they store toxic chemicals on-site, and, if so, what are they? This was in the aftermath of an AG office ruling – which Abbott apparently learned of after the fact – that the Department of State Health Services (which once provided such information) no longer need disclose chemical stockpiles, because of a 2003 Home­land Security law intended to keep "terrorists" in the dark. (Scare quotes around "terrorist" are somewhat redundant, I suppose, but politicians are generally reluctant to conjure "the bogeyman" instead.)

Yet it wasn't "terrorists" who blew up West, Texas, in April of 2013, and the 15 people (including first responders) who died there would have been less likely to rush to their deaths had they known that they were heading into an ammonium nitrate blast.

Not to worry; Abbott told Texas Tribune reporter Jay Root there is an easy solution. "You know where [the chemicals] are if you drive around. You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals or not. 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."

Deservedly mocked for that comically preposterous suggestion – especially after reporters tried to follow it, with predictable results – Abbott walked it back, first pointing to useless zip code lists, and then saying local fire stations could provide the information to any inquiring neighbor. This advice was extremely helpful – if not necessarily to local fire departments – although the attorney general didn't say how to prevent those pesky "terrorists" from making the exact same inquiries.

Earned Ignorance

Needless to say, the Wendy Davis campaign is having a field day over her opponent's bungling, embarking on a "Texans Deserve to Know Tour" likely to last until November. Oddly enough, Abbott – like his predecessor, John Cornyn – as attorney general has had a reputation as a defender of open government and open records, although significantly that "openness" is most comfortably defined as applying primarily if not exclusively to government-held information. The moment somebody starts asking questions about "private" corporations – even though those corporations are often much more powerful than government in our daily lives, especially in small towns like West – public officials get all defensive about "privacy rights."

The Davis campaign has suggested, to the Abbott campaign's outrage, that the AG ruling is directly connected to major campaign donations from Koch Industries (significant players in the ammonium nitrate fertilizer business). There I side with Abbott – he would have taken that none-of-your-business position whether or not he'd gotten cash from the Kochs. It's the default mode in Republican politics.

Is it a winning issue for Davis? Certainly it can't hurt, and added to the GOP institutional intransigence on public education and health care, it should steadily erode voter support for the Republican slate. But that's a far cry from fulfilling Davis' promise to reverse her hopeful formulation that Texas is not a red but a blue "nonvoting state." Every year those blue voters have their chance to show up on election day, and every year, they pass.

Who Rules Texas?

More lamentable to me is the question not yet raised in this argument over disclosure of hazardous chemicals: not "Where are they?" but "Why are they where they are?" For the people of West, knowing that an unregulated, highly explosive stockpile was stored near residential neighborhoods would have been of little help in the moment (in addition to the dead, there were more than 150 injured, and major damage to dozens of buildings, including an apartment complex and a nursing home). A year later, those laughable fertilizer regs remain unchanged (following the explosion, Gov. Rick Perry instantly proclaimed them innocent), and major chemical stockpiles of all kinds are stored in and near neighborhoods throughout the state.

So what else is new? Gangster Tony Soprano famously declared, "I don't shit where I eat." Many perfectly legal Texas businesses are hardly so fastidious. This is a state – like its neighbor Louisiana – long in thrall to the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries, which, like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, shit wherever they wish.

Can anybody imagine what a firefighters' index of hazardous chemicals must look like for Baytown, Pasadena, or, indeed, Houston? (In Texas City they've found out, more than once.) Knowing that you're sitting on an explosion-in-waiting is hardly conducive to peace of mind; knowing that the government agencies nominally charged with protecting your interests in fact spend most of their time protecting the interests of the owners of those explosives should be old news to most Texans.

We can continue pretending that without our credulous assistance, "terrorists" wouldn't know where to begin, should they wish to ignite an impressive conflagration. Meanwhile, our state-protected masters go right on poisoning our air, land, and water with little effective oversight let alone resistance, and the best we can manage is: "Please tell us where the bombs are buried."

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