Eleven days after Intercontinental Terminals Co.’s chemical tanks erupted in flames near Houston and spread panic across the fourth-biggest U.S. city, the company’s top executive made his first public appearance.
Until Wednesday afternoon, a sales and marketing executive was tasked with explaining and defending ITC’s handling of the worst Gulf Coast chemical disaster in 14 years. The lack of visibility of more senior executives during the crisis is “cowardly,” Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said in an interview.
Less than three hours after Garcia’s comments were published by Bloomberg, ITC Chief Executive Officer Bernt Netland posted an 88-second YouTube video in which he thanked firefighters and apologized to residents of Houston’s eastern suburbs whose lives have been disrupted by the calamity.
“All of us are profoundly upset the incident happened and very sorry for the impact on the surrounding communities,” Netland said in the video against a backdrop of computer screens. “I pledge to you that we are making available all necessary resources to resolve this.”
Netland’s absence from the public eye irked Garcia, a former sheriff who’s now in charge of the precinct where the disaster zone is located. “I’ll give you a Texas term for what I think that is, and that Texas term is chickens—,” he said.
Garcia said he’d been involved in two closed-door meetings with ITC’s CEO and spoken via phone once. But invitations to Netland to appear at town hall meetings with residents were ignored, he said.
“While I have shown up at these town hall meetings, I feel like I’ve been having to provide answers for ITC that they should have been present to answer themselves,” said Garcia, a former sheriff of the third-largest U.S. county.
ITC is a unit of Japanese conglomerate Mitsui & Co. Prior to the March 17 fire and subsequent benzene plumes that shut down entire towns, ITC had ambitions to expand its chemical storage capacity to 17.6 million barrels, according to Mistui’s March 2018 annual report, the most recent available.
“I can assure you that our executives are very, very involved, working very, very hard with this incident,” ITC spokeswoman Alice Richardson said on Tuesday. “They will guide us in the right direction and make sure we have the resources to ensure that we get back to where we were.”
Garcia said his top concern is that toxic fumes from the incident will create “the next generation of cancer patients.”
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, said Lan Ni, an associate professor at the University of Houston’s Valenti School of Communication.
“This may have worked in the past but nowadays people are more demanding,” Ni said. “People are looking not only for what has been done but also how the CEO or other executives are actually feeling towards the residents and community affected by the crisis.”