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Texas governor and attorney general do little to curb state’s chemical plant crisis

Republicans Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton have taken thousands of dollars in donations from chemical companies and their affiliated PACs.

By Jesse Valentine - December 08, 2023
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Greg Abbott

On the morning of Nov. 8, 2023, a chemical plant in Shepherd, Texas, exploded. Residents close to the calamity and in neighboring counties were advised to shelter in place amid fears that the air could be poisonous.

Between 2004 and 2020, Texas led the nation in chemical plant disasters, according to analysis by the Guardian newspaper of Environmental Protection Agency data. Analysis by Coming Clean, ​​a nonprofit environmental health collaborative, found that Texas had more than 1,500 hazardous facilities registered with the EPA’s Risk Management Program.

Despite these troubling trends, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have consistently resisted efforts to establish safeguards for the industry.

After a 2013 plant explosion in West, Texas killed 15 people, the Obama administration ordered the EPA to implement new rules to prevent future accidents. In 2016, as part of that effort, the EPA proposed stricter reporting requirements for facilities that held excessive amounts of regulated chemicals. That same year, Paxton co-authored a letter with other Republican attorneys general arguing that increased transparency about what chemicals were stored at the plants would be costly and also heighten the risk of terrorist attacks.

“In previous comments to rulemakings on this subject, many of our states explained concerns about protecting our citizens from risks of intentional releases by bad actors,” the letter said. “We warned that Risk Management Program rules must address the dangers of making sensitive information about chemical facilities readily available to the public.”

The American Chemistry Council, a lobbying group for chemical companies, praised Paxton for resisting the rule, which was implemented in 2016 but ultimately dismantled by the Trump administration the following year.

In 2022, Paxton signed on to another joint letter asserting chemical plant transparency posed risks to national security. The letter also objected to a proposed EPA rule that said climate change and environmental justice should be taken into consideration by companies that run chemical plants when assessing safety concerns.

“On this broad spectrum of facilities, EPA seeks to impose additional Risk Management Plan requirements that incorporate ‘climate change risks’ and impacts into the regulations and expand the application of so called ‘environmental justice,’ neither of which is an appropriate basis for regulating under the statutory provisions at issue in this proposed rule,” the letter stated.

Between 2016 and 2022, when Paxton was waging these fights, he received large donations from PACs affiliated with chemical companies totalling $7,501.88 from Phillips 66 PAC, $2,000 from 3M Company PAC, and $5,000 from Eastman PAC of Eastman Chemical Company. All of those corporations are members of the American Chemistry Council.

Abbott has also opposed efforts to make chemical plants more transparent. 

In 2014, when he was serving as Texas attorney general, Abbott ruled that state agencies could withhold the locations of hazardous chemicals from the public. Prior to Abbott’s ruling, the information was available upon request from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is tasked with monitoring hazardous chemicals and plant safety. In May 2023, Abbott signed a bill into law that empowered the commission to dismiss complaints from citizens against polluters if the citizens had filed previous complaints that did not result in enforcement. 

Tim Doty, a former commission employee, blasted the legislation. “In my experience working at the TCEQ for almost 30 years, there’s very few frivolous complaints,” Doty told Austin ABC affiliate KVUE. “People are affected negatively by industries and processes, and they should have the right and ability to make complaints.”

Like Paxton, Abbott has also taken thousands of dollars in donations from PACs associated with the American Chemistry Council. This includes $20,000 from Honeywell International PAC in 2014 and $10,000 from Dow Chemical Company Employees PAC in 2018.

Neither Paxton nor Abbott immediately responded to requests for comment for this story.


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