The face of the petrochemical industry's recklessness
I grew up in the shadows of the glowing, mysterious pipes and towers of the refineries in Deer Park, Texas. I moved away from that area years ago, but the four petrochemical fires of 2019 — two at the Exxon Mobil plant in Baytown, one at KMCO in Crosby and one at Intercontinental Terminals Company just five miles from where I went to high school — keep bringing me right back there again.
The dark plumes of smoke, the visible explosions, the terrible smells, the burning throats, the trilling sirens, the rushed instructions to hide under desks to get away from classroom windows that could be blown in, the calls to “shelter-in-place”? It might seem crazy, but all that seemed normal.
It was such a part of our lives in the communities near the Ship Channel that the Deer Park Local Emergency Planning Committee came up with a mascot: Wally Wise Guy. Wally, a turtle, knows just what to do when a nearby chemical plant explodes: He closes the doors and windows, turns on his emergency radio and retreats deep into his shell. All with a smile on his face!
It’s unclear, exactly, when Wally emerged to show Deer Park residents how to shelter in place, but he’s licensed for use now in 20 states. Designed to travel to schools and festivals and appear in PSAs to deliver their messages to children, lovable mascots have been dedicated to gun safety, power line safety (Louie the Lightning Bug even has a cool theme song), fire safety, road safety. Why not one for chemical safety?
I can report from experience, having worked for a company that managed two safety mascots, that young children love them. They wave, they hug, they hand out branded coloring books, and parents leave community festivals with a positive feeling about companies that gave away a balloon and are also out of compliance with the Clean Air Act.
Of course we should teach children how to be safe when there are chemical disasters. They’re scary and they’re dangerous. Children need to know how to protect themselves.
But Wally Wise Guy puts an overly friendly face on the petrochemical industry’s recklessness and the state’s lax regulatory oversight. These disasters shouldn’t happen.
Since 2009, ITC had been fined more than $65,000 for repeated violations of clean water and air regulations, but never changed their practices. After the fire that killed one worker, a Harris County environmental attorney said about KMCO, "This company has been around forever causing trouble.” The Olefins plant at the Exxon Mobil facility in Baytown was sued for more than $20 million in damages in 2017, and then it went on violating the Clean Air Act for three years running.
Instead of fixing the problems and preventing the disasters, petrochemical companies communicate to the public how to live with them until they’re over.
Imagine a jolly pill bottle that teaches children to use opioids only as prescribed. Or a giant, cracked iPhone dancing around a high school auditorium to warn against the dangers of texting and driving.
Asking an intern to wear a soft, colorful costume and sending them out to wordlessly stand near spokespeople, petrochemical companies can provide evidence of regulatory compliance toward their required public safety communications. They don’t have to prove it works, just that they’ve done it.
That communication matters. It normalizes the risk. I saw it growing up, when my neighbors waved it away. It’s the cost of doing business. It’s the price you pay for good jobs and well-funded schools. And I heard it when, after the ITC fire, one Deer Park resident told the Houston Chronicle, “Things happen. Everything’s OK now.”
Did Wally Wise Guy teach them to accept all this as normal, to believe once the toxic cloud blows away and they’re still alive and the town is still there, everything’s OK, now? It doesn’t have to be that way. You shouldn’t have to hide. And you shouldn’t have to live waiting for the all-clear to poke your head out again.
Cress is a writer in Houston. She writes poetry about the news for a project called Breaking Poems. Her work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, KUHF’s Houston Matters and in the Houston Chronicle.
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