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.

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.”

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Richard Parker is an award-winning journalist and the author of Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, from Pegasus Books. Follow him on Twitter @Richard85Parker.