WFAA once again denied access to chemical lists by state officials

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on July 4, 2014 at 12:29 AM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

New information is starting to surface in the controversy over the Texas Attorney General's ruling to withhold chemical inventory lists from the public. 

For the second time, WFAA-TV was officially denied access to all of the state's chemical inventory lists. The denial didn't come from the Attorney General but from the Texas Department of State Health Services for a new reason not given before.

At issue was the Texas Attorney General's decision to deny public access tochemical inventory lists called Tier II. Those lists were mandated by Congress in the mid 80s and are supposed to be available to the public to alert citizens of dangers posed by the handling of hazardous chemicals by local businesses. 

They were public records in Texas until two months ago when Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled they were off limits. Thursday, his office issued a new explanation. 

"The Texas Homeland Security Act, not Greg Abbott, requires DSHS to withhold Tier II information," said Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Abbott. "That law has been in place since the law passed in 2003. Greg Abbott hasn't changed the law. Families, local businesses and communities have a right to this information and it is available to them ... through the facilities that store these chemicals." 

As News 8 found out Wednesday, not all businesses are eager to share the information.

Now, what appears to be a new obstacle for Texas citizens has surfaced. WFAA’s renewed attempt to get chemical inventory lists from the Department of State Health Services was rejected for a new reason. 

"It is the position of the department certain information should not be disclosed," wrote Marc Allen Connelly, deputy general counsel, in his denial of information sought by WFAA. "A third party’s interest may be at stake." 

He specifically referred to "Tex Gov't Code 552.110, which allows businesses handing chemicals to claim certain information as confidential." 

In other words, state health officials are denying public access to chemical inventory lists based on a business' right to privacy. 

Tom Smith, director of Texas Public Citizen, said he believes the sudden secrecy has become absurd.

"We are calling on the Attorney General to repudiate the agency's assertion that the records are confidential,” Smith said. “Under federal law, every citizen has an absolute right to know about whether there are explosives or toxins that are in their neighborhood." 

As of Thursday night, Abbott continued to stand his ground and the state health department was digging in. Chemical inventory lists will no longer be released by the state. The bottom line, if you want to know what's being stored next door, you need to go knock on it.

Email bshipp@wfaa.com

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