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NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

WAXAHACHIE -- On October 3, 2011, fire and explosions rocked a chemical plant in Waxahachie. The images are hard to forget; a river of flames washed out of the burning Magnablend chemical blending plant.

While no one was injured, Ellis County local officials took a beating for underestimating the threat.

Afterward, a few local residents wanted to know: where was their county's Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC)?

An LEPC is a federally-required citizens group charged with "developing an emergency response plan, reviewing it at least annually, and providing information about chemicals in the community to the citizens."

News 8 reported the apparent lack of an LEPC in McLennan County, where 15 died in a chemical explosion in West, Texas last month.

Ellis County resident Dave Vance began asking about his local LEPC after the Magnablend fire.

"We learned about the LEPC's -- didn't exist, Vance said. We were told, and still can t find proof of this, but we were told the LEPC hadn't existed since 2008."

Another Waxahachie resident, Bryan Thomas, said he was ignored by Ellis County commissioners when he tried to discuss the formation of an LEPC.

"When I tried to talk to the county judge or even get an agenda proposed for the commissioner's court meeting, they censored me and wouldn't allow me to speak or ask questions about anything," Thomas said.

Ellis County Judge Carol Bush declined an on-camera interview, but assured News 8 by e-mail, "an LEPC was formed during a previous administration."

But Ellis County officials have yet to provide evidence one exists.

Which might explain why Ellis County residents Tom Sale and Dottie Love recently had trouble getting information about a chemical plant outside of Ennis, called Pencco, located near their farm.

We simply want to know what's in there, and is the county aware that it's there, and are some kind of procedures in place if there were a problem with this?" Sale said.

So we took a hidden camera and accompanied Sale to the Ellis County Emergency Management Office looking for a list of hazardous chemicals kept at the Pencco plant. It's called a Tier II report, and Ellis County Emergency Management Coordinator Joe Stewart is required to have one for every business housing hazardous chemicals.

Stewart said he didn't have a hard copy and a computer glitch kept him from accessing it from the state. Then, during the conversation, Stewart revealed that Pencco, "had a little spill there not too long ago."

News 8 has learned that little spill was 2,000 pounds of the corrosive chemical ferric chloride.

The spill early last month was contained and no one was injured. Still, Stewart appeared to have little grasp of the incident.

The following is the conversation recorded between Stewart and News 8's Brett Shipp:

Shipp: "Do you know what's on-site out there right now?

Stewart: Naw, not off the top of my head.

Shipp: You don't know what's out there?

Stewart: Not off the top of my head, I mean, we've got a list of it.

Shipp: Do you have a clue? What do they do?

Stewart: Uhh, I'm not sure of the exact process."

That was last Friday morning. The following Monday, we returned, again asking Stewart for a list of chemicals at the plant.

Shipp: Did you get the Tier II on that place out south yet?

Stewart: I don't have it yet. The state's overwhelmed right now."

Vance, who has been requesting an LEPC for Ellis County since the Magnablend fire in 2011, calls it another disturbing sign.

"They are the first line of knowledge, not only for the community -- for their right to know, but for all the agencies having the documentation on how to respond to it, what to do, what these companies even have in them, Vance said.

Stewart later provided News 8 with a Tier II report from the chemical plant and said he's working on putting an LEPC together. He said in the meantime, he has organized all of the county fire chiefs and has made sure all emergency response plans are up-to-date.

When we asked him for a formal interview about emergency preparedness in Ellis County, he declined.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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