After the 2019 petroleum plant explosion in Deer Park, Texas, USA, citizens and advocacy groups organized town halls to address the fallout, response, and reaction to the fire.
Problems and Purpose
After the fire was finally put under control in March, 2019 at the Mitsui & Co’s Intercontinental Terminals Co (ITC) petroleum storage facility in Houston, Texas, USA, residents in the surrounding community began experiencing adverse health outcomes and worried about further health risks and possible water pollution . Some students missed school and adults missed work. Residents also were calling for those responsible to be held accountable for their negligent actions that resulted in heavy chemical pollution in their neighborhoods . Due to the powerful presence of oil companies in Houston, local authorities were perceived as reacting too slowly or too weakly. There needed to be a centralized meeting to calm the chaos and outline the next steps forward for the residents. The goal of the town-hall meetings was to allow residents and victims to express their frustrations, ask local experts and advocates questions, and receive medical and legal advice. The organizers hoped they could point the community to take the next steps forward in regards to litigation with ITC and developing future contingency plans .
Background History and Context
On Sunday March 17th, 2019, a fire broke out in a petroleum storage facility in Deer Park, Texas in the United States. After it became uncontrollable, special fire crews were brought in to control the blaze. Three days after the initial ignition, the fire was temporarily put out only for it to ignite that same day . The plume of smoke from the fire grew so large that the city of Deer Park asked residents to take shelter from the dangerously high levels of benzene in the air. To make matters worse, a wall separating the facility and a local waterway broke which caused chemicals and byproducts to spill into the Houston ship channel. After the fire was finally under control the Texas Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against ITC, the company that owns the facility . Due to being the largest oil-producing state in the United States, Texas is known to have a culture and economy built around oil. An important contextual note is that oil facilities are typically located near poor and traditionally Persons Of Color (POC) communities due to poor zoning regulations and ‘oil producers’ political influence. Many advocates felt as if it was an example of environmental racism exacerbated by greedy oil companies common in impoverished communities. Deer Park is also technically outside of Houston’s jurisdiction so the resources to address the issues are significantly less than in the metropolitan area .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The town hall meetings were hosted and supported primarily by left-leaning advocacy and environmental groups including Sierra Club, Communities Caring for Pasadena, Texas Housers, Air Alliance Houston, FIEL, Public Citizen, Indivisible Houston, LULAC, HOME Coalition, Federal Jobs Guarantee, DSA Houston, Houston Climate Movement, Pantsuit Republic Houston, Noyolo Love & Confederacion de Ministerios Cristianos, and Sunrise Movement. The Houston fire chief was also in attendance to provide advice , .
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The hosts of the town hall specifically invited legal, medical, environmental, and academic experts. The local experts who attended were selected by the hosting advocacy groups in a way that is not clear from the sources. They were likely just local and involved subject-matter experts who were available and interested in attending. Elected officials who were interested in attending were also present. Altogether there were 10 officials at the event as indicated in the Facebook Live event. Eight of those ten were on the panel . The residents were self-selected. According to the sources it is unclear how many citizens attended the event. However, according to the Facebook Live recording of the event there were 19 citizens who had a chance to stand up and speak with the microphone . One can also hear a crowd clapping in the recording so it is safe to assume others were in attendance but did not speak. Once source claimed “hundreds” were in attendance . To aid in recruitment, there were extensive press releases across news outlets, partnered groups, and social media to publicize the town halls in advance .
Methods and Tools Used
Organizers used an open-mic, Town Hall style of allowing residents to ask questions and express their concerns. A board of experts as part of a Panel Discussion would answer the questions relevant to their field. They also allowed short speeches by the experts, advocates, and politicians in attendance. One important tool used was Spanish and English translators to remove any linguistic barriers among the participants . Social Media also played a role in the event. A Facebook Live recording was made available on a Facebook page called “ITC Disaster” . There was some discussion under the Twitter hashtag #ITCDisasterTownHall but the discussion was fairly minimal .
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Advocates began the town hall on March 25th, 2019 at the Iglesia Fuente de Agua Viva in Pasadena, Texas by laying out the current situation in the community regarding the fire and fallout . They introduced the experts and explained their expertise to help focus residents’ questions. Each expert gave a quick speech to address the most common needs and questions. After the speeches, residents were invited to ask the panel questions . They were also invited to express their frustrations and share any remarks. Around 19 residents asked questions or shared remarks. Finally, a local elected official laid out the current legislative situation regarding the fire .
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Due to the town hall style of discussion, many citizens were able to freely express their frustrations and experiences with the ITC fire . They were also able to ask questions of the panel and receive meaningful feedback. Although this was not included in the Facebook Live video, it was reported that citizens were able have their medical questions answered by medical professionals . Residents were also encouraged to fill out health surveys to be given to county officials for another meeting. The speakers also touched on litigation and provided themselves as liaisons for any legal issues. Although they had the goal to develop contingency plans for future disasters, it is not evident in the recording that any were made. However, one organization distributed shelter-in-place kits for if there is another chemical fire. It appeared that many citizens were able to relate to each other’s experiences and build social capital by developing a sense of community cohesion . Although much of the event went against government officials, the elected officials present tried to convey a sense of advocacy for the local citizens.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Overall, the town halls brought to light many of the shared issues of the community. This helped unite the community after this environmental and health disaster . It appears the tools used (Town Hall, Panel Discussion, Social Media) were appropriate to achieve the goals set out by the organizers. Due to the lack of long-term reporting sources it is difficult to determine the long-term effects of the town hall. Having an online source for resources publicized at the meeting could have assisted those not in attendance. According to the Facebook Live video, it does not appear that much planning was initiated among the participants . Ideally, more concrete planning could have conducted at the town hall to make the next steps clearer for citizens.
 ITC Disaster (2019, March 25). ITC disaster facebook live recording. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/ITCDisaster/videos/385970115331926/.
 Crissman, M., & Rubac, G. (2019, April 6). Town meetings expose community health crisis after Houston fire. Retrieved from https://www.workers.org/2019/04/41806/.
 Misiaszek, M. K. (2019, March 24). Hundreds of concerned deer park residents turn out for legal advice. Retrieved from https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Hundreds-of-concerned-Deer-Park-residents-turn-13711828.php.
 Cohen, D. (2019, August 15). Houston community leaders announce 3 town halls on ITC disaster. Retrieved from https://www.indivisiblehouston.org/community-leaders-announce-3-town-halls-on-itc-disaster/.
 Sierra Club (2019, March 22). Deer park itc fire in houston burns on, no end in sight. Retrieved from https://www.sierraclub.org/press-releases/2019/03/deer-park-itc-fire-houston-burns-no-end-sight.
 Parras, B. (2019, March 22). Media advisory tweet. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/HighTechAztec/status/1108990341183692801/photo/1.
 Fox 26 Houston (2019). Deer park citizens raise concerns over ITC fire. Retrieved from http://www.fox26houston.com/news/396597717-video.
 KHOU 11. (2019, March 25). Timeline: ITC chemical tank fire in deer park. Retrieved from https://www.khou.com/article/news/timeline-itc-chemical-tank-fire-in-deer-park/285-960722df-3907-49c4-91ef-25dc5250dfe1.
The first version of this case entry was written by Blake Farris, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and then edited. The views expressed in the entry are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.