AUSTIN, TX - In the wake of the industrial explosion that shattered the town of West, TX, earlier this year, leveling buildings and killing 15 people, much media coverage was shot through with repetitions of error, rash conclusions, and other flaws. Against that backdrop The Dallas Morning News stood out with reporting and commentary that was balanced and careful but aggressive, as I wrote for CJR in May.

It’s now more than four months after the blast. The federal government has refused additional disaster assistance, and the national news media has long since turned its attention elsewhere. But the Morning News continues to plug away at the story. And last Sunday, a four-person investigative team from the paper delivered its latest findings, after a three-month effort that involved reviewing hundreds of thousands of records: We actually don’t know anything meaningful about the safety record of the chemical manufacturing industry in the United States. Federal record-keeping is fragmented, error-ridden, and inconsistent. Tighter state regulations don’t seem to make a difference. Private industry data covers just a fraction of companies.

In short: despite the hue and cry for more regulations and more enforcement after the West explosion, we actually don’t have the foggiest idea where to start to head off deadly chemical accidents. We don’t even know how many serious accidents there are. For that startling finding and for dogged follow-up months after the West disaster, the Morning News deserves a CJR Laurel.

Comprehensive but useless

The US chemical industry is enormous. It employs nearly 800,000 workers directly, another 2.1 million indirectly, and sells more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars worth of product each year.

The Morning News story began simply enough, with the investigative team—reporters John McClure, Daniel Lathrop, and Matt Jacob, and editor Maud Beelman—posing a straightforward question in the wake of the West explosion: How often is this major industry involved in serious or potentially serious accidents, in Texas and nationwide?

But the simple question turned out not to have a simple answer. “This one was really confounding,” said Beelman, the editor. “The data sets should’ve been giving us better answers than we were getting.”

The bad data, of course, became the story. Here are some highlights from the Morning News’s report:

  • Only one federal agency, the US Coast Guard’s National Response Center, gathers comprehensive data on chemical spills and accidents. But the center is more like a 911 call center, recording initial reports—which often turn out to be wrong or incomplete and even include training incidents. A spokesman says it is not the center’s mission to follow up on initial reports and verify what happened.
  • These unverified data then get reported and repeated. One June 1, The New York Times in an editorial cited 1,270 deaths in 2012 in the United States due to chemical accidents. “But that figure included 907 deaths that didn’t involve chemicals and 137 that never happened. They were recorded as a part of training exercises,” according to the Morning News.
  • But serious accidents and fatalities get under-reported, too. In 2005, a busload of hurricane evacuees caught fire in Texas, killing 23 people on board after oxygen tanks blew up. The response center’s data recorded just one death.
  • All told, about nine out of 10 records in the database are inaccurate in some way. One expert told the News that the data is “comprehensive but… useless.”

Over-recorded and still under-reported

So, the team tried a different approach: comparing the response center data to three other national data sets, to see how many accidents could be corroborated. They examined data from the National Fire Incident Reporting System, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Chemical Safety Board. (The Chemical Safety Board, an independent investigative agency, has come for scrutiny itself; a major report from the Center for Public Integrity was coincidentally published the morning of the West explosion.)

“The results,” the Morning News reported, “were disappointing.”

From 2008 to 2011, for instance, the Coast Guard data recorded 158 calls related to potentially serious accidents at Texas facilities. Only 12 percent could be found in any of the other databases.

Richard Parker is CJR's Texas correspondent. A regular contributor to the Op-Ed section of The New York Times, his columns on national and international affairs are syndicated by McClatchy-Tribune. He has also twice been appointed the visiting professional in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker.