Ever since fire broke out at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park on March 17, people have been asking questions.
Most questions are typical in the immediate aftermath of an incident that reeks havoc on an entire community. Questions about the cause, the response, the health effects (short and long-term), who or what is to blame….the list of queries is endless.
While some are answered quickly, others will take time. But this is a given: the small community on the outskirts of Houston, the world’s energy capital, is not the only one affected by this petrochemical blaze.
What happens in Deer Park does not stay in Deer Park
Let’s play a quick game of “True or False”
- There were no fatalities. TRUE
- That doesn’t matter. FALSE
Just because no one died doesn’t mean all is right in the energy world
The fact is, the ITC fire raged for nearly four days; noxious smoke filled the sky for hundreds of miles; a shelter-in-place warning was issued because of dangerously high levels of an invisible, cancer-causing crude oil compound called benzene; schools were closed, and so was a seven-mile stretch of the Houston Ship Channel.
Reaction is key
Dealing with the most obvious and immediate effects of a chemical tank erupting in flames is a given. That’s on first responders. But today’s social media, instantaneous, tweet-worthy, livestream available moments mean one thing: we’ve come to expect information to be nearly immediate, too.
In this case, 11 days went by before we heard from ITC’s top executive. On March 27, CEO Bernt Netland posted an 88-second YouTube video thanking firefighters and apologizing to residents whose lives were disrupted.
“A CEO who’s busy directing a disaster response behind the scenes also needs to make time to publicly assure neighbors and the broader community.”Lan Ni, an associate professor at the University of Houston told Bloomberg
Ni says, nowadays, the public is more demanding of answers.
Whether looking at this from a public safety angle or a public relations one, there are some takeaways.
According to a recent Houston Chronicle article, the Deer Park disaster is a black eye on the entire petrochemical industry. An industry that already struggles with a rep for being dirty and dangerous.
Within three days of the accident, Professor Ramanan Krishnamoorti from the University of Houston’s College of Engineering said government agencies and the petrochemical industry should be more proactive and transparent about safety and emergency plans. Krishnamoorti appeared on KUHT-TV’s Houston Matters.
Despite growing numbers of companies making great strides toward safety and environmental responsibility, one disaster can undo years of image-building.
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, offshore operators produced 7 billion barrels of oil from 1985 to 2001 with a spill rate of only .001%. Why? Because of technology. Some has improved drilling accuracy. Other technology can detect unexpected changes in pressure, or automatically shut down production when safety is at stake.
According to the American Chemistry Council, chemical companies have reduced the number of safety incidents that result in spills, fires, explosions or injuries by 60% since 1995. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2017, the incidence rate for non-fatal injuries in the petrochemical sector was less than one per 100 workers, about four times lower than the overall manufacturing industry.
Impressive stats, yes. But accidents do still happen and when they do, suddenly, it doesn’t matter how far the entire industry has come regarding worker safety and environmental threats.
Where you stand depends on where you sit
A culture of safety is dependent on many different and diverse viewpoints. Environmentalists, executives, investors, plant employees, politicians, their constituents…..each has his or her own way of looking at the energy industry. And when an accident happens, each pulls out a magnifying glass to take a closer look from their own vantage point.
“Authorities should consider whether monitoring air quality should be done using airplanes, remote sensors, robots and devices at ground level”Professor Ramanan Krishnamoorti, University of Houston College of Engineering
It’s a safe bet, ITC’s crisis has prompted other petrochemical companies to look at their own safety processes. But they shouldn’t stop there. They should share with each other, including the competition.
Michael Kehs, managing director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, told the Houston Chronicle, executives from different companies should “double down on engaging with public officials, first responders, community members and even critics to share their best practices they’ve implemented.”
Finally, consumers, a.k.a. voters, and those they elect, get to weigh-in, too. Are your state officials giving regulatory agencies the green light to implement stricter safety measures at refineries, or more lenient policies? Same at the federal level. Are those in office repealing safety measures?
Modern-day conveniences are energy-dependent
But how often do we think about where they come from, and the dangers involved in producing items we take for granted?