The day before Port Neches families were set to gather for Thanksgiving, a chemical plant explosion disrupted their holiday.
Three were injured in the early morning explosion on November 27. It occurred at Texas Petroleum Chemical (TPC) Group’s Port Neches facility.
TPC is a petrochemical company that specializes in turning byproducts of petroleum products into goods such as rubber, lubricants, plastics, and fuels.
The specific explosion reportedly originated from a butadiene processing unit — a chemical used in creating synthetic rubber — but spread to other units, which contained unknown chemicals.
Those units’ substances remain unknown due to a power outage at the time of the explosion, according to TPC Group manager of health, safety, and security Troy Monk.
TPC Group has been fined numerous times over the past decade for emissions violations and had been dubbed a “high priority” violator by the EPA since 2017 for violations of the Clean Air Act — resulting in over $100,000 in fines since 2016. From 2009 to 2018, the Port Neches facility reportedly released anywhere between 37,000 and 67,000 pounds of butadiene annually.
Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick issued an evacuation order shortly thereafter but that order has since been lifted.
The total number of people evacuated reached 50,000.
According to TPC Group’s latest update response measures are still ongoing and have designated high, medium, and low impact areas.
See the map below.
The company is working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), and Jefferson County to mitigate the effects and begin a damage claims process for those affected by the explosion.
TCEQ is monitoring the air quality and their latest update from Sunday showed none of the areas monitored were found to be at risk of reignition — but as of Friday, some areas still contained enough volatile organic compounds (VOC) to disrupt respiration or cause eye, nose, and throat irritation.
According to the Center for Disease Control, for butadiene exposure to cause bodily harm through inhalation its air-concentration must amount to 2,000 to 8,000 parts-per-million (ppm).
As of yesterday, the highest concentration reading of VOCs — of which, butadiene is one — by the TCEQ indicated four ppm.
The highest concentration TCEQ detected was six ppm in its first monitoring report.
Direct contact with compressed butadiene can cause frostbite, although this poses no risk to the general public. Butadiene is, however, flammable at room temperature.
TCEQ provided The Texan with the following statement from executive director Toby Baker: “Within the last year, I have witnessed an unacceptable trend of significant incidents impacting the Gulf Coast region. While not all emergency events may be prevented, it is imperative that industry be accountable and held to the highest standard of compliance to ensure the safety of the state’s citizens and the protection of the environment. At this time, the TCEQ is focused on emergency response efforts, including evaluating real-time air quality data. As this situation transitions back to normal operations and post-event remediation, all agency authority will be assessed with the aim of achieving comprehensive compliance given the presence of the petrochemical industry in Texas.”
According to Judge Branick, there were initially nine fires at the facility and this morning only one remained. Branick also told The Texan a distillation tower fell on Saturday and all towers in the area were set to fall but “none would cause another explosion by falling into other infrastructure.”
Officials monitoring the situation stated no airborne asbestos had been found.
The cause of the fire has yet to be identified.
Update: For ongoing status updates on the Port Neches cleanup, please go here.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.