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Fertilizer plant blast: Does post-9/11 secrecy make your life riskier?

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“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.

More specifically, Mr. Pickett wanted to know whether terror-age realities had blunted right-to-know protections enshrined in the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, passed by Congress in 1986. That law attempted to balance regulatory reporting and concerns about trade secrets with the ability of citizens to easily tap into databases to learn about the potential dangers in their community.

“What’s the conflict from 1986 versus 9/11, as far as that information?” he asked before underscoring what he described as an elusive “balance” between the intent of the 1986 law and more immediate security considerations in the post-9/11 era.

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