An Associated Press investigation has found that across the country residents are ill-informed as to the dangerous contents of many facilities in their communities, such as the explosive fertilizer at the West, Texas factory that exploded in April. The reason: agencies at all levels of government refuse to release the critical information about what and where dangerous chemicals are stored because they fear the information will be used for terrorism. The tragic irony is that in fact the secrecy of this information is far more deadly than terrorism.
Using public records from 28 states, the AP identified 120 facilities "within a potentially devastating blast zone of school children, the elderly and the sick." The investigation reveals that although the information is sometimes available from state environmental agencies or emergency management offices, in many instances this information isn't publicized. "We never thought of an explosive potential," said Dr. George Smith, the West, Texas EMS director.
Many of the 120 facilities identified by the AP store some form of ammonium nitrate, an industrial fertilizer than can be stored safely, but often is not. It is the same compound that caused the West Fertilizer Co. factory to explode.
The explosive potential of these stores of ammonium nitrate risks the lives of all those within a quarter- to half-mile radius, while those within a quarter-mile are likely to be in the blast zone of a potential explosion. The analysis found that 600,000 people live within the blast zone radius around the ammonium nitrate facilities identified.
Although the Department of Homeland Security has a list of ammonium nitrate facilities, it does not share it because of security concerns. That was the same explanation given by other states including Ohio, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, and South Carolina. Because of this the AP was only able to identify those plants in the 28 states that provided records. The national number is unknown.
The study criticizes DHS and those states for what they call "'probability neglect': People are far more likely to overreact to emotional, extremely unlikely events such as terrorism than to address potential problems that are far more likely to occur."
In many cases, the states are acting in contradiction with the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act requiring states to tell people where dangerous chemicals are stored. In Hawaii for example, officials told the AP that residents did not have the right to the information, and had to prove a "need to know."
Current policy presupposes that people know enough to ask and dig for the information as the Associated Press did. Even then, only 28 states provided records, and even then, many of the records were flawed. Records received not only listed the wrong amount of ammonium nitrate, but also often gave the wrong location for the chemicals. That does not mean that they were not able to identify where in the factory the ammonium nitrate is, but rather where the factory itself is: "One plant in Tucson, Ariz., listed an ambiguous address ('end of cement plant road') and a geographic coordinate so off base that the Environmental Protection Agency's reporting software flagged the facility as being in a different county."
Although it is scandalous that local, state, and federal government fail to properly inform their citizens about the dangers in their back yards, it is reassuring that some organizations are willing to fill the information gap. This report only scratches the surface of the problem of probability neglect, and hopefully this investigation will not only force the remaining states to update and release the information, but also encourage citizens to proactively seek out answers to these questions.
Because you never know what may be hiding in plain sight.
Image Credit: Operation Hope