*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, under fire for blocking public access to state records documenting the location of dangerous chemicals, said Texans still have a right to find out where the substances are stored — as long as they know which companies to ask.
“You know where they are if you drive around,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday. “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.”
In a recently released decision by his office, Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, said government entities can withhold the state records — in so-called “Tier II” reports — of dangerous chemical locations. The reports contain an inventory of hazardous chemicals.
But Abbott said homeowners who think they might live near stores of dangerous chemicals could simply ask the companies near their homes what substances are kept on site.
Collected under the federal Community Right To Know Act, the information was made available upon request by the state for decades to homeowners, the media or anyone else who wanted to know where dangerous chemicals were stored. But, as WFAA-TV recently reported, the Texas Department of State Health Services will no longer release the information because of the attorney general’s ruling.
WFAA reported that the department turned down the station's request for information.
Abbott contends the state is required to withhold the data under state homeland security exemptions, because evildoers could use it to gain access to the chemicals and terrorize communities.
Speaking to reporters in Austin on Tuesday, Abbott called the decision to keep the government-held records a secret a “win-win.”
He said it allows the state to withhold documents that could expose communites to terroristic threats while ensuring that “every single person in the state of Texas will have access to information stored in any plant in their neighborhood.”
The campaign of Abbott’s Democratic rival, state Sen. Wendy Davis, saw it differently.
“This is nothing more than a pathetic attempt by Greg Abbott to paper over his deeply unpopular decision to keep dangerous chemical locations secret from parents, even when they are blocks from a school," said Davis spokesman Zac Petkanas. “The standard cannot be them going door to door asking blindly whether this location has the chemicals they’re worried about.”
Abbott said the law requires private companies to tell citizens within 10 days whether they have chemicals. When asked if that meant citizens had the right to go onto their private property to demand the information, he initially said “absolutely.”
Abbott corrected himself seconds later.
“Just to make clear, you may not be able to walk on private property. But you can send an email or letter or notice to anyone who owns any kind of private property or facility, saying that under the community right to know law, you need to tell me within 10 days what chemicals you have,” Abbott said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, you are obligated under that law to respond.”
The law he was referring to, entitled "Direct Citizen Access To Information," is in the Texas Health and Safety Code. It says that certain chemical facilities "shall furnish or mail" the Tier II information within 10 days of a request.
The law also says that if the facilities get a certain number of repeated requests for the information, the company "may elect to furnish the material to the department," meaning the Texas Department of State Health Services. Though Abbott has already ruled that the department can withhold Tier II reports, his office said the state would have to fork over information sought under the "direct citizen access" process.
Abbott indicated that Texans would have to figure out themselves which facilities to ask, but he said people who are familiar with their communities — or places they might want to live — generally know that already.
“When you buy a home you don’t just target on the Internet and move in the next day,” he said. “You drive around the neighborhood, you’re going to know everything that exists in the neighborhood in which you move, and you have the right to inquire before you move in there, every single facility along the way, whether or not they’re storing any kind of chemical whatsoever.”
Abbott’s campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch sent a message on Twitter suggesting that the information also could be obtained from fire departments. He did not respond to a request to clarify the statement. Meanwhile, Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland, from the attorney general’s office, told The Texas Tribune that under Abbott's ruling “a governmental entity can withhold” the Tier II reports.
He said a fire department is considered to be a governmental entity.
Strickland clarified later that the ruling about the Tier II reports applied only to the Department of State Health Services. Should a fire department seek to withhold information it has about hazardous chemicals, he said that request would go through the normal open records process and any decisions would be reached on a "case by case basis."