Sunday, May 26, 2013

Emergency committee meetings few, far between

Frank Patterson confronted by WFAA newsman Brett Shipp

Emergency Officials never discussed West Fertilizer Co.

West – The last thing the Matus family ever saw clearly were the bright orange flames and smoke from burning ammonium nitrate at the West Fertilizer Co.

Deidre and Steve stood before a window with their six-year-old grandson Brayden, looking at the fire when the twin explosions a millisecond apart leveled the structures and tanks at the plant and spread a mushroom cloud.

The force of the explosion was felt as far away as Lake Whitney Dam, where a seismograph picked up a shock wave as intense as a small temblor, and in Waco, where people heard the massive boom.

Steve and Deidre Matus and their grandson Brayden
Shards of glass and flying metal riddled the family's faces, totally blinding one, and partially destroying the vision of the other two - as well as destroying their home.

A dozen first responders, most of them members of the West Volunteer Fire Department, some from other departments, were killed instantly, their bodies incinerated, while three elderly patients from a nearby rest home perished when ceilings collapsed upon them.

The immediate question raised by media and finders of fact – whose avowed treatment of the disaster zone was the same they would use in the investigation of a crime scene – was this. 

What had the community at large done to plan for such a horrible emergency?

It is a federally mandated contingency required of all local governments, throughout the U.S.

Citizen journalists and media outlet representatives from out of town and international wire services clamored for details of the local emergency planning committee (LEPC), its drills and contingency plans in case of such a massive explosion of the volatile chemicals stored at the fertilizer and seed company.

Local officials hostile to news inquiries

McLennan County Emergency Services Coordinator Frank Patterson refused to discuss the membership of the committee, its meetings, or reveal the minutes of those meetings. He deflected all inquiries, saying that public information act requests should clear up any such questions. WFAA's newsman Brett Shipp asked if there was a "single shred" of evidence that such a committee exists, or has any members. "I don't see any," he declared.
Brett Shipp of WFAA/TV

Finally, after a half-hour's intense grilling, he admitted to a local broadcast newswoman that, no, there had been no advance planning in case of such an emergency.

Angered, McLennan County Commissioners' Court attorney Mike Dixon called an abrupt halt to the conference. He stormed from the chamber, refusing to identify himself to media representatives whom he had reproved for not raising their hands before they blurted their questions to Mr. Patterson.

One may hear a condensed recording of that discussion by clicking here.

Fighting City Hall for information - a dreary task

Following up on a public information act request, “The Legendary” Investigative Reporter R.S. Gates paid a visit to Mr. Patterson's office in the basement at Waco City Hall. Once he was there, he found no one in the office, so he waited a half hour.

While he waited, he noted that there is no signage directing citizens as to how they may receive public information through written requests. It is a reqirement of the law, which is Section 552 of the Texas Government Code.

He took a snapshot of the bulletin board to show that no such signage, signed by the Texas Attorney General, is on display there.

That's when another employee who observed him responded by summoning Assistant Emergency Services Coordinator Robert Barton from another part of the building. Mr. Barton became very angry because 1) Mr. Gates was waiting for service in a public office, and 2) he had reportedly snapped a picture.

He accused Mr. Gates of breaking and entering.

Waco City Hall on a recent winter's evening
Mr. Barton summoned a police officer, who did a cursory investigation, then told Mr. Gates he was free to leave. He apparently found no violation of the law other than ruffled feathers and a sense of outrage.

The dispute that erupted between the two men centered on the public information act request and the seeming unavailability of information regarding the federally-mandated local emergency planning committee.

Mr. Barton became exercised because it had only been six days since The Legendary had initiated a request for information, and the city's legal department allows itself 10 days for an attorney's review of the request. Apparently, local broadcasting outlets and the daily newspaper published at Waco received this material far in advance, either by request, or by other means.This is not the first time a local official has been only too willing to summon officers to investigate Mr. Gates when he is on the hunt of public information. One may read of a previous tussle with a Deputy District Clerk who jumped to conclusions several years in the past:

One may hear an abbreviated recording of this present tense encounter here.

We received the information so requested on May 10 – with legal claw marks all over it. The package consists of a DVD with 186 documents recorded on it, the first of which is a letter from then County Judge Jim Lewis to Mr. Harvey Henning, who was then the Emergency Services Coordinator, regarding a meeting of the LEPC.

The file continues through 2010 with meetings and sign-in sheets of government emergency services departments such a police and fire, first aid and health officials, as well as local industrial representatives from companies such as Plantation Foods, M and M Mars, Chrysler Technology, and Texaco, as well as broadcast outlets and a daily news publishing company. Meetings were held on a quarterly basis up until the past few years, when they dwindled away to once per year.

The officials and industrial representatives usually dined out at a local luncheon spot – dutch treat – and discussed such items as industrial storm wastewater management, as they did on Feb. 19 of this year, and the like.
Commissioners' Court Attorney Mike Dixon

There are no notations of any particulars such as evacuation in case of fire, hazardous materials explosion, improvised explosive device, Indian attack, freight train derailment, lightning strike, sabotage, arson, or any other disaster, in any of the material we received.

The latest meeting of the LEPC was held in 2010, as acknowledged by Mr. Patterson.

There are no discussions noted that concern explosions of hazardous materials such as fertilizers used as blasting agents in applications other than agricultural cultivation – such as ammonium nitrate.

In the documents obtained, there is no mention of the present County Judge, Scott Felton, an interim replacement for Judge Jim Lewis, who was appointed to fill the former official's unexpired term.

When queried by out-of-town newsmen, he said he had no idea that there is such a committee, nor was he aware, he reportedly stated, that he is the chairman of the committee.

He has made no appearance to date to answer any questions about the matter, but his administrative assistant, Lynne Lockwood, did appear at the ill-fated news conference so hastily adjourned by the Court's legal counsel, Mr. Dixon.

1 comment:

  1. The commissioners court is a real joke and Frank Patterson . I t will never change until we get all of them out of Mclennan county.