Adrian Garcia is the Harris County commissioner for Precinct 2.

Relationships with neighbors can be complicated. Some neighbors you’re really close with and speak to on a regular basis. Some you see when you check the mail but don’t really talk to. Others you never see or speak to until there’s a reason for the neighborhood to come together.

We got to know our neighbors a little better the past two weeks.

When I got word about the ITC fire in Deer Park on March 17, I immediately reached out to my typical neighbors – the Deer Park mayor, Harris County Public Health, Environmental Protection Agency, and more. We knew ITC had moved into the Deer Park neighborhood in 1972, provided jobs to our friends and boosted our economy, but before March 17, we never really talked to our industry partner down the street.

Those silos end today.

All stakeholders – business, government, and community organizations alike – need to have a seat at the table when discussing how industry and residents coexist. We all need to work together to ensure our economy can thrive while our communities are safe. It is our job to make sure incidents like this don’t happen again.

The first step to doing that is addressing problems that this event exposed. We lacked three key things: foam on site, air monitors, and first responder/public knowledge about tank contents.

As a dark plume of smoke tangled with chemicals snaked through the sky over the Houston region, residents were rightly concerned for their safety. It hovered over school playgrounds, park trails and field workers for day,s and though various state and federal agencies were monitoring air quality, we still did not have enough air monitors to station across the region to tell residents whether they had cause for concern. More permanent air monitors are needed to provide up-to-date air quality information, especially near schools and parks.

Through this, we’ve learned government agencies must do a better job regulating our partners when potentially unsafe materials are near our communities. ITC is only required to have enough foam on site to battle one tank fire for 65 minutes if chemicals are released. We learned quickly that is not nearly enough. Out-of-state partners had to be requested to bring additional foam for the fire, which was finally extinguished days after the fire began. New regulations need to be implemented to ensure industry partners have enough foam on campus to handle worst-case scenarios. 

Additionally, our industry neighbors are not required to report what materials are in tank farms. Due to Homeland Security matters, we know this information cannot be public at all times. But when an incident breaks out, this information needs to be made readily available to both the community and firefighters. The firefighters need this information to maintain safety and strategically address the fire. The residents also need to know the tank’s contents so they can make informed decisions about what actions to take for their family’s well-being in the unfortunate event those materials are released.

It comes down to being good neighbors – ones that look out for each other and are willing to communicate openly. We should not get to know our neighbors because there’s a disaster. I hope ITC and our industry neighbors take this as an opportunity to learn, build public trust and be a positive presence in our region. I want to see this company and others invest in this community. As a good neighbor, they should be looking at issues that matter to their neighbors such as public health, access to healthcare, the environment, education and firefighter resources.

When things happen in a community, and eventually they will, good neighbors talk with each other and work through most difficulties. When we know one another in advance, we are more willing to address each other. When we make ourselves available to answer to the issue at hand, we build trust and confidence that together we will get through whatever has happened.

We will all continue to get answers and act on solutions. Together we can work to ensure our residents feel safe, engaged and educated about our industry neighbors. Harris County can lead the way in collaboration between industry, community organizations and government to promote a healthy and economically strong area.