Governor’s 2014 ruling could have blocked public knowledge of chemical stockpile in Lubbock neighborhood explosion

A Lubbock home exploded Tuesday night, killing two and injuring others, including first responders.

The home owner, John Fleming, 72, who operated a business that manufactures hydrogen and ammonia modules out of the destroyed residence, is one of the deceased.

Neighbors and witnesses say the explosion originated from a large underground cellar

The other lived next door. Rodica Gelca, 45, according to neighbors, was extinguishing flames with a garden house on the wooden fence between the two properties when a secondary explosion occurred.

Left in the aftermath is debris, death and unanswered questions. Homes some six blocks away were rocked by the blast. One home, almost two blocks away, indicates roof damage from heavy fallout, and surrounding homes show broken windows. Some neighbors were suspicious of hazardous air quality, even up to Wednesday evening when I visited the scene.

According to neighbors, the explosion began in Fleming’s sizable underground cellar, where what he kept explosive chemicals; officials have yet to quantify the amount stockpiled. Observers of the scene might wonder how much more death and destruction would have occurred if the initial explosion had occurred at ground level.

However, what lingers over the scene more heavily than tragic death and destruction is questions.

One neighbor, a friend of Gelca, standing feet away from a front porch that became a make-shift triage unit Tuesday night, tearfully asked the most important question of all: “How did this happen, how did (Fleming) have all those chemicals at his house and nobody knew?”

In this Tech Terrace neighborhood, she isn’t alone in asking this question.

The view from Gelca’s backyard where neighbors say she was spraying the fence with a garden hose when a chemical canister exploded

And to begin answering the question, we have to go back to 2014.

Then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, citing “ongoing terroristic activity” in the state, issued an opinion blocking public access to two federally required documents from companies handling and storing hazardous and explosive materials: a mandated risk management and a detailed accounting of the chemicals on site.

The result was that state agencies, such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, could withhold chemical explosion risks from the general public.

In fact, to date, the opinion leaves the AG’s office, currently run by Ken Paxton, with little to no authority to enforce private companies handing over records. According to a Texas Tribune report last year, “a recent open records ruling out of Paxton’s office says ignored requesters may complain to the TCEQ, but the commission has no records of such an investigation or issuance of penalty.”

In other words, the state’s top hazardous material oversight agency has little power to compel companies to report chemical storage. Even a business operating out of a residence two streets away from a major public university.

The ruling also seems to stunt local efforts for disclosure. For instance, how is the Lubbock Fire Marshal’s Office, which operates under adapted guidance from the most recent International Fire Code Council (see Sec. 407), to ascertain thorough knowledge of, permit and regularly inspect businesses storing hazardous chemicals when state oversight is so lax?

Moreover, today in Lubbock, city codes forbid transaction-based businesses operating from a residence– and it’s yet unclear whether Fleming was conducting transactions.  But there’s no code in place to restrict storage of hazardous chemicals on residential properties, and there’s legitimate concern that post-explosion efforts to regulate such chemical storage and issue public warnings of such storage would legally run afoul of the 2014 decision.

By law, those storing more than 100 pounds of hazardous material are to report to TCEQ; more than 500 pounds calls for a disaster plan to be provided to local first responders. Some describe the later as a matter of “due diligence” by the business, meaning that even if Fleming did report to TCEQ, local law enforcement might’ve known (if TCEQ wanted to release the information), but the general public would not known, like they would’ve with a call to the Texas Department of State Health Services preceding the 2014 opinion.

It can leave one to wonder how it is that anyone can go online and learn exactly where sex offenders reside, but Texans can hardly know if a nearby home could explode.

A view of debris, including charred tanks, in Fleming’s backyard

And in this, Lubbock home owners facing unprecedented residential explosions are like Hurricane Harvey victims, wondering what exploded, what has yet to explode and what remains in the air around their families. And like Harvey victims, Tech Terrace neighbors do so without answers.

Four years ago, Abbott said, “You know where they are, if you drive around. You can ask every facility whether or not they have chemicals.”

It’s uncertain whether the now-governor understood that a home could be identified by Joe Q. Public as such a facility, unless Public thoroughly cross-referenced limited liability company filings with every residential address in their community. Questions have previously been asked about how much campaign contributions informed Abbott’s decision.

But what is certain at the time of publish is that what rocked a Lubbock neighborhood Tuesday night could happen just about anywhere in Texas. If the intent of the 2014 opinion was to protect Texans, its outcome seems to be having opposite effect.

And, unless things change at the state level, more Texans could be exposed to the death, destruction and unanswered questions that linger in Lubbock.

Update: For clarity, headline has been edited from ‘Abbott’s 2014 opinion could help answer questions about this week’s explosions in a Lubbock neighborhood’

 

Jay Leeson is the host of Other Side of Texas radio program, which you can hear weekdays from 5-6pm beginning April 19 on Lubbock’s AM580. Contact him at jay@othersideoftexas.com or Twitter @jayleeson.

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