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 executives have yet to make a public appearance, drawing criticism from one top official.
Junior colleagues led by a senior vice president of sales and marketing have been saddled with the unenviable task of explaining and defending ITC’s handling of the worst Gulf Coast chemical disaster in 14 years.
“I think it’s cowardly not to step forward and be forthcoming with the public,” said Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia, whose precinct includes the disaster zone. “I’ll give you a Texas term for what I think that is, and that Texas term is chickens—.”
ITC Chief Executive Officer Bernt Netland didn’t return voice messages left at his office or home. Neither Netland nor COO Robert Pennacchi or CFO Mark Jeansonne have appeared at daily media briefings that have been the company’s primary form of communicating with the press and public.
“The CEO is heavily involved in this response and his job is to support me as incident commander to make sure that I have every available resource I need to get ITC and the community and the federal government through this incident as quickly as possible with minimal impact to the responders,” said Brent Weber, the ITC manager who’s been the face of the company’s response.
Garcia said he’s 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 have been 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.”
Meanwhile, Weber dismissed suggestions the calamity could wipe out ITC financially.
“Between ITC’s insurance and our available financial resources, ITC will prevail through this,” he said.
Mitsui said in an email that it’s aware of the incident and has been in touch with ITC executives in Texas. The company referred all other questions back to ITC.