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Harvey points to need for governmental transparency

Covering a news event on the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey is a difficult feat in and of itself.

It can be made all the more difficult if newsrooms lack the tools to do so.

What happens at the Texas Legislature and in the halls of government buildings can have a big impact on newsrooms’ ability to report on what local and state governments are doing in order to prepare and respond to such a storm.

It can also impact the public’s ability to know of immediate dangers in local communities.

That’s why TAB invests significant efforts at the Capitol and elsewhere to ensure public access to information held by the government.

Hurricane Harvey has illustrated the dividends of access to information and the disservice to the public when it is restricted.

Case in point, last year’s stories by the Texas Tribune detailing how Houston’s rapid expansion has greatly worsened the danger posed by flooding.

The multi-month reporting effort, in conjunction with ProPublica, utilized a wide variety of public records sources in the reporting.

The Tribune reprised some of that prescient work this past week to illustrate how accurate it was as proved by Harvey.

But this past week has also illustrated some of the losses Open Government advocates such as TAB have experienced at the hands of state and federal officials in recent years.

So-called “Tier II information”, information about chemical facilities in local communities, is near impossible to come by.

Why is it important?

The public should be able to ascertain what chemicals are stockpiled at local businesses because of the threat to neighborhoods.

Prior to 2014, the public had much easier access to Tier II information but now there is no guarantee of it.

Citizens in Crosby were in the dark this past week when the Harvey-damaged Arkema plant there sparked an evacuation.

Arkema refused to release the information because it is no longer required by state and federal law to do so.

It’s even difficult to access such companies’ risk management plans.

As the Austin American-Statesman reported, these are not available online but are “on file at the Environmental Protection Agency’s federal reading room in Dallas and Department of Justice reading rooms in Houston and San Antonio.”

The plans detail what a worst case disaster incident might entail.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality maintains Tier II reports but these only have the potential for release under the Texas Public Information Act.

Such requests are considered on a case-by-case basis.

The State of Texas directed state agencies not to release Tier II information following a 2014 ruling by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The Statesman notes that the deadly West fertilizer facility explosion in 2013 also exposed the lack of publicly available information, not just for the public and newsrooms, but for local first responders and emergency planning teams as well.

Situations such as the incidents in Crosby and West point to the need for access to information about potentially dangerous chemicals and the public safety risks involved.

Texas citizens’ lives may depend on it.

Questions?  Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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