This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media.
What if terrorists learned which dams in Texas, like two on Houston’s west side, are in need of repair and might make a good target? What if they could use a state database that keeps track of where explosive chemicals are stored to locate warehouses where they could steal ingredients to build a bomb?
Those fears surfaced a year ago as a Texas legislative committee heard testimony about the storage of explosive, chemical fertilizers. A manager of a facility in east Texas, Brad Johnson, told the lawmakers: “There needs to be some form of limitation as to who has access to that information in a changed world that we’re in.”
A world changed by terrorism and in Texas, the state government shares those fears. In two opinions issued by the office of then attorney general and now Governor Greg Abbott, the threat of terrorism trumped the public’s right to know.
In a 2005 opinion, the AG’s office denied a request by an Austin TV reporter. The reporter wanted a statewide list of dams that are in hazardous condition. The AG said such information must be kept secret under the Texas Homeland Security Act.
Then in 2014 after a fertilizer warehouse in West exploded, reporters wanted to know the location of other such storage sites statewide, data that’s kept by the state. The AG’s office said it recognized that the public does have a legitimate interest in where hazardous chemicals are stored, but said that interest is overridden by the state’s concern for what terrorists might do with such information.
But one reporter in Lubbock tried a different approach. Nicole Brambila knew that under the state’s Right to Know Act, local fire departments also receive chemical data for their communities.
“I just asked for a list of top chemicals in terms of quantities and the facilities there in Lubbock,” Brambila told us.
The Lubbock Fire Department sent Brambila a list but not one that proved of much use.
“It was basically just a list of chemicals, you didn’t know what companies were using those chemicals, where they were stored,” Brambila said.
The list was of little use she said because the names and addresses of the chemical facilities had been blacked-out on the document. But she was told by the attorney general’s office that the Lubbock Fire Department had followed Texas law.
Brambila had also tried approaching chemical facilities in person, something the AG’s office had suggested.
“They shooed me off the property and they wouldn’t give me that information,” Brambila said of one chemical company she visited in Lubbock. “I think the average Joe is going to have a hard time finding out this information for themselves.”
It is information that would allow the public to know what hazards there might be near homes or schools. It’s knowledge that can be powerful. Just ask Karla Land.
“If we had not been allowed to know all of this…that plant would have been there and we may have been another West,” Land said.
Land is talking about what happened when she and her neighbors learned that a company wanted to store thousands of gallons of ammonia in their community just east of the Houston Ship Channel industrial complex. Ammonia can give off a deadly gas. The community challenged the company and convinced the state to deny it a permit.
But that was years ago in 1990. Since then, Land says so much has changed and she worries that now, information is harder to get, making people like her more at risk while having a questionable impact on reducing any threat posed by terrorists.
“(Terrorists) don’t care what’s in there. It’s a plant. They don’t have to know what’s in there. They can go anywhere up and down the Ship Channel,” Land said.
Environmentalists say they’ve become concerned with what’s happened to the public’s Right to Know in Texas and say they’ll propose changes when the legislature meets next year.
We asked the Attorney General’s office for comment but a spokesperson said the office’s previous legal opinions speak for themselves.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has told state and local governments that they should be careful when developing lists of facilities that might be targeted by terrorists.
A 2002 FEMA guide says: “Even where laws do not require strict confidentiality, planners should apply common sense regarding whether information that could be useful to terrorists should be made available on the Web or distributed widely in other ways.”
In a 2014 case involving whether a Pennsylvania database of facilities storing hazardous chemicals was public information, a state appellate court ruled that under federal law, the records were not public and should not be given to a reporter.