March 21, 2019
The news media struggled to explain the use of naphta and Xylene to the petrochemical process but it’s much easier to emphasize their danger than their usefulness; with government and industries in low esteem, rumors and conspiracies rampant, shouldn’t there be a higher profile for state jurisdictional agencies and the oil and gas industry as a whole?
An abundance of caution surrounds the alarming fire incident at the Intercontinental Terminals Company and there’s every indication that the aftermath is going smoothly, but there are two important takeaways:
The circumstances under which the inferno happened were actually fortunate for the public considering the height of the toxic plume of smoke — and the petroleum industry together with government should take a moment to note the public interest deficiencies.
It’s my contention that state agencies such as the TCEQ should have vocal representatives to inform the public during petrochemical incidents such as this one.
It’s also my contention that the oil and gas industries should have their own representative at worrisome scenes such as the ITC fire, not for public relations but for public comfort and information.
We Were Lucky
The weather was with us: The Harris County Meteorologist Jeff Lindner admitted that while the toxic smoke from the tank farm at ITC (owned by the Japanese industrial giant Mitsui) was being carried high above the Houston area, had winds and weather been different it might have been a disaster for people in the path of the smoke, especially the young, the elderly and the infirm.
People who live in the vicinity of the Houston Ship Channel petrochemical complex have always been aware of their vulnerability to the industry that surrounds them and they take incidents like the Saturday fire (extinguished quickly) at a Baytown facility in stride, and there are extraordinary precautions in place for all nearby residents, but even those protocols would have been severely taxed had there been the kind of weather that keeps the winds at ground level.
There Was Good Information Flow
At the scene of the fire there was no shortage of rumors floating like the billowing smoke: It was arson, some said, terrorism (because of the ExxonMobil fire the day before), there were unattended safety systems, there was outright carelessness, others said, none of these rumors proved to be true.
And there were the usual sensational headlines: “Massive Houston chemical fire burns indefinitely, spreading smoke across Texas” was among the more exaggerated (it would take a lot of smoke to spread across the whole state, and the ITC smoke didn’t even “cover Houston,” as some said), and there are those who said the fire burned for four days (how can you squeeze four days between 10 am Sunday and 2 am Wednesday?).
As late as Thursday there were rumors that winds had shifted and there was danger for those in fast-growing Pearland and points south of the tank farm, also not true.
But county and local officials and especially ITC kept the information flowing: Pollution monitors showed no real short-term danger, monitoring was continuous and there was the needed caution.
No one said everything’s wonderful, just that it appears to be under control, as the firefighting continued.
As with Hurricane Harvey, the Harris County Judge, in this case Lina Hidalgo, made frequent appearances, if only to be a comforting presence and to restate the opinions of experts.
The Railroad Commission’s Ryan Sitton was there to affirm the air safety pronouncements and the ITC spokeswoman, Alice Richardson, appeared prepared for questions and forthright with what answers she had.
“There Must Be Some Kind of Coverup”
But the lack of confidence in the wider scope of government and the oil and gas industry was palpable for those of us who were there: There must be a coverup of some kind, people kept saying, the smoke is too rancid-looking and the air too thick with chemical smell.
It would have helped, perhaps, to have an outspoken representative from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality at news conferences to give comfort to residents, and it just seemed like there should have been some representation from the oil and gas industry to help calm fears and answer questions about the nature of the materials that were going up in flames.
News media struggled to explain the uses of naphta and Xylene in the industry and how exposure to it might affect those who might breathe the charred fumes — and the resulting warnings inevitably made the chemicals seem deadly.
The press conferences could have used a cool-headed expert, which both the TCEQ and the US Environmental Protection Agency could probably have provided, if not the oil and gas industry, but there was no one to reassure folks that there was no coverup underway.
It Could Have Been Worse, So Where Were Jurisdictional Agencies?
Yes, polls indicate a suspicion among most people of government and big corporations, but there’s no way of restoring faith among the public without concern, reassurance and cooperation.
The TCEQ has been under fire for some time by critics who claim it’s in cahoots with big industries,but again it’s a big state with a lot of territory to cover and the agency has a lot of responsibilities.
Public confidence in the EPA is also ebbing, especially in the era of President Trump simply because it appears the administration is weakening environmental protections, but the EPA appeared weak during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 when it, according to the Los Angeles Times two weeks ago, refused “Houston’s own” NASA’s attempts to fly a pollution-measuring plane over the city in the aftermath of Harvey.
With low confidence in public agencies such as these, it would seem intuitive to send knowledgeable representatives to help calm public fears at times of potential crisis such as the ITC fire, which could have been so much worse that the EPA and TCEQ absence from the public discourse could have been anger-provoking.
Please Send Experts to the Scene to Give the Public Better Answers
And it could have been worse — the plume of smoke was already circling south of Houston and up northwest into the Brazos Valley and to Austin, where an accumulation of smoke would have been hard for lawmakers in session to ignore.
If the Houston Chronicle reporting is true that the cause of the ITC blaze was a malfunctioning manifold at one tank that erupted in fire because of a spark, then ITD’s dispatch of a special firefighting team from Louisiana, which apparently resulted in a more aggressive stance against the fire, was a prudent move, if perhaps late, and the Red Adair method of fighting wellhead fires using dynamite would have been out of place in hot zones such as the ITC fire.
But when all measurements are taken and the investigation into the cause of the fire is finished, it would also seem necessary for the oil and gas industry and its representatives to consider an emergency dispatch for an on-call expert who can be there when potential disasters such as the ITC fire occur.
It’s not enough for an industry so vital not only to Texas but, considering the world economy is based on petrochemicals, for the world that local officials try to assuage public fears during petrochemical emergencies.
The lack of an expert opinion in these situations only drives suspicion, conspiracy theories and outrage.
“Do You Want to Negotiate a New Deal? Perhaps a Green One?”
The ITC fire was visually spectacular, an invitation for video news, image addicted as it is, to spread the story around the world, and we all know that as stories are spread details are embellished and facts can get mangled.
This would not be a time to call for better public relations for the oil and gas industries, but it certainly would be time to call for an industry-wide decision to take better control of the industry as a whole during the inevitable disasters when human error or the unknown or even failing equipment can bring unforeseeable environmental disaster.
A breach by an outlying company such as ITC can easily reflect on the industry as a whole, and in this case it probably has.
As Houston Chronicle columnist Chris Tomlinson pointed out, the thick black smoke is a reminder that we have to get our nail polish remover and gasoline processing chemicals somewhere, and the bargain the world has made for cheap gasoline and natural gas includes the occasional problem — sometimes huge — that makes the “Green New Deal” look better to some, possibly including Tomlinson.
Perhaps the greatest single lesson for the oil and gas industries and the agencies that oversee them, in this case, is that it doesn’t take another Macondo Prospect-Deepwater blowout to spell public relations disaster — it could be a blown manifold at a chemical tank farm.
Or some other small thing, until it’s not so small anymore.
— Mike Shiloh