AUSTIN (AP) — The first bill drafted by Texas lawmakers in response to the West fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people got an icy reception Tuesday from Republicans who said the tougher proposed regulations would overburden storage facilities with complexities and cost.
“It seems like we’re out there with a power grab,” Republican state Rep. Dan Flynn said.
Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott also defended on Tuesday a ruling he made that allows the state to withhold the exact location of facilities storing potentially dangerous chemicals like ammonium nitrate. The compound caused the massive and deadly fireball at West Fertilizer Co. in April 2013.
But Abbott, the favorite to replace Gov. Rick Perry next year, also said that anyone is free to inquire with chemical companies themselves about what’s stored on their premises — and receive an answer within 10 days. That drew a rebuke from Abbott’s opponent in November, Democrat Wendy Davis, whose campaign said parents have a right to easier access of that information.
Giving the state fire marshal more inspection authority and requiring ammonium nitrate to be stored in non-combustible containers are among the first proposed new laws put on paper.
The Texas Legislature doesn’t reconvene until January, and writing any bill this far in advance is unusual. But the draft comes after the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety spent the past year investigating the explosion that mostly killed firefighters and first responders.
Chairman Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat who wrote the bill, said that without stricter laws there would be another disaster on the scale of the West blast.
“I don’t think there has been much actual, physical change to any of the facilities that are dangerous” since West, Pickett said. “I think some of them are waiting to see what Legislature might do but very few have done anything to make it safer.”
Immediate pushback from GOP lawmakers on the panel signaled how tough it could be to push substantial changes through the Republican-controlled Legislature next year. They broadly called the first draft “overkill” and openly wondered how small fertilizer plant operators could afford to meet new regulations.
The state fire marshal has supported requiring structural improvements to 46 facilities in Texas that store ammonium nitrate. In the West explosion, the ammonium nitrate was stored in flammable wooden containers.
The blast injured 200 people and caused $100 million in damage in the rural city.
Pickett did defend Abbott’s ruling that the Department of State Health Services can keep locations of facilities with possibly dangerous chemicals secret. Previously, Texans wanting to know about companies keeping such chemicals could find out from the department.
Addressing reporters at a separate event Tuesday, Abbott sad official confidentiality can help stop potential terrorists. But he also called the ruling a “win-win” since “every single person in the state” can learn about “chemicals stored in any plant.”
“You know where they are if you drive around,” Abbott said of chemical facilities. “You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals.”
Davis spokesman Zac Petkanas said, “The only thing more outrageous than Greg Abbott keeping the location of chemical facilities secret is telling Texas parents they literally need to go door to door in order to find out if their child’s school is in the blast radius of dangerous explosives.”
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