One might speculate that Texas’s generally anti-regulatory stance is to blame for the low number of matches. But the team performed the same exercise for California, which has tougher state laws, and found nearly identical results—just 10 percent of initial reports showed up in the other three databases.
But while the total number of incidents may be over-recorded in the Coast Guard data, serious or potentially serious accidents are still under-reported, and under-scrutinized. Faced with the lackluster results of the simple matching approach, the team decided to read through 500 individual narratives of incidents. They found 24 “serious or potentially serious” accidents in Texas from 2008 to 2011. “On rough average, that’s one every two months—a lot more than make headlines,” they wrote.
One 2009 ammonium nitrate accident in Texas that prompted an evacuation was “eerily similar” to what would later happen in West. Had the fire “been recognized as a near miss, lessons could have been learned that might have prevented the explosion in West four years later,” the Morning News wrote. Yet the 2009 incident was recorded merely as “a large chemical fire.”
A ‘not-my-problem’ attitude
There appears to be, according to the investigative team, a pervasive “that’s-not-my problem” attitude among regulators.
Some regulators monitor certain chemicals and other regulators oversee others. Industry data covers only only a fraction of the overall industry, which the Morning News says numbers some 22,000 companies. “Nobody is taking a comprehensive view to this as a general problem,” said McClure.
“I think what we’re finding is that lawmakers, policymakers and corporations are trying to split hairs when it comes to the safety and security of chemicals,” said Jacob. “But I don’t think you can separate the two.”
And policymakers can compound the problem by demanding improvements but not targeting the problems with the data. US Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., held hearings on West, but then just urged regulators and governors to do a better job.
“I really worry that policy is just following headlines,” said McClure. “If you’re following headlines you’re not going to get a get a clear picture of what’s going on.” A reliance on automated data collection risks making the problem worse, he said. “You end up trusting your algorithms way too much.”
So, what about the bottom line? Given the state of the data, is there a path to effective oversight?
Or put it another way—can the public feel safe?
“The answer,” says Lathrop, “is no.”