But attempts by Texas newspapers in the wake of the explosion to get more detailed information from the state about other local caches of ammonium nitrate have gone unanswered. The state cited terror-related secrecy concerns in refusing to divulge that information.
This raises a stark post-9/11 question: If, in the name of hiding sensitive information from terrorists, citizens are to be kept in the dark about hazardous materials and other potential dangers in their backyard, should not the state then take responsibility for ensuring that those products are well-regulated and under lock and key?
“I think what I worry about is that this word, terrorism, allows states, industry, others who are opposed on more broad grounds to right-to-know ideas, it gives them cover for what they would have opposed anyway,” says Erik Loomis, a historian at the University of Rhode Island who has closely followed the aftermath of the West disaster.
Conversely, he says, “If you say ammonium nitrate is so extremely dangerous that we have to make sure terrorists can never touch this, that probably means [these plants] should be treated more like a nuclear facility and less [like] some industry that’s literally in people’s backyard.”
At a Texas House hearing Wednesday with a cadre of Texas regulators – including heads of public safety, environmental quality, the insurance commission, and the state chemistry lab – Rep. Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat and chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, found himself butting up against the same dilemma as he tried to extrapolate how effectively the state regulated some 44 similar fertilizer plants scattered across Texas’ great expanse.