• University releases confidential records to Regent Wallace Hall

    After several months of dispute, the University agreed this week to release confidential records from October 2012 to February 2013 to UT System Board of Regents member Wallace Hall Jr.

    Hall, who had already been granted access to roughly 40 boxes of materials, requested the files earlier this year as part of a larger conflict between the University and the board. Hall was also one of the four regents who voted for an external review of the relationship between the UT School of Law and the Law School Foundation because he alleged there were documents that were not made available for the original investigation conducted by System council Barry Burgdorf.

    Kevin Hegarty, the University’s vice president and chief financial officer, is in charge of open records requests. According to the Austin-American Statesman, Hegarty initially was hesitant to give access to confidential records to Hall – but system lawyers advised that with the exception of Social Security numbers, personal health information and information about students, Hall is entitled to see the information. System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said the files were expected to arrive this morning.

    In April, The Texas Tribune obtained documents revealing Hall had failed to disclose his involvement in at least six state and federal lawsuits on his original application for the regent position.

  • Investigators may determine cause of West explosion soon

    An investigation into the origin and cause of the fire and subsequent explosion in West may be completed by May 10, the state fire marshal told lawmakers Wednesday.

    The West Fertilizer Co. plant explosion killed 15 people — including 12 first responders — injured more than 200 and destroyed 142 homes and several buildings, including a nursing home and two schools.

    Speaking to the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy likened the ongoing investigation to an archaeological dig and said investigators — who represent 28 state and federal agencies — are working to reconstruct the cause of the explosion by examining the 14.9 acre blast radius.

    “This is a very complex event as you can imagine and we want to make sure we do it correctly,” Connealy said.

    The marshal said investigators have ruled out a natural event, such as a lightning strike, as the cause but three other categories of probable causes — accidental, incendiary and undetermined — are still on the table.

    Connealy spoke at the first hearing regarding the explosion, where representatives from eight state agencies assessed their role in overseeing and regulating plants such as the one in West.

    As of February, the plant contained 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical with explosive capabilities, said David Lakey, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. He said 41 other facilities in the state also have large amounts of the chemical.

    Lakey said facilities with fewer than 10,000 pounds of ammonium do not have to submit reports because the chemical is not included on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of dangerous substances.

    Steve McCraw, Texas Department of Public Safety director, said about 1,100 plants in Texas store the chemical.

    Officials said local fire departments are authorized to inspect these facilities. Texas Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd said he had not directed fire departments in cities with similar plants to conduct inspections, but said he could do so upon lawmakers’ request.

    State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, chairs the House committee and the hearing was intended to clarify agencies’ role in handling the aftermath of the explosion and overseeing similar plants. He said he did not intend for lawmakers to get involved in the investigation or “to point fingers.”

    “I want to take it at a pace that is not a knee-jerk reaction to things,” Pickett said after the hearing.

    Legislators in Washington will also examine the cause of the blast.

    On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the committee would investigate the circumstances surrounding the explosion. Boxer sent letters to the Chemical Safety Board and Environmental Protection Agency asking how each would follow up on the situation.

    "I cannot rest until we get to the bottom of what caused the disaster in West, Texas and the tragic loss of life,” Boxer said in a press release. “It is critical that we find out how this happened.”