TPC Port Neches Plant Explosion Brings Scrutiny to Years of Environmental Violations
It appears the TPC Group’s Port Neches petrochemical plant was endangering its neighbors well before a massive explosion and fire injured three workers and forced more than 60,000 people in southeast Texas to evacuate their homes over the Thanksgiving holiday.
EPA Considers TPC Port Neches a High-Priority Violator
Not only does the facility have a years-long history of state and federal environmental violations, but it’s also been considered a high-priority violator by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the past two years.
“When you look at all these facilities and their compliance histories, it’s like a rap sheet,” Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund, told the Texas Tribune shortly after the November 27th disaster. “And of course, we see many times these bad actors that continue to have violations and ultimately this can lead to the kind of major disasters like the explosion last night.”
Located about 95 miles east of Houston, the family-owned TPC plant in Port Neches manufactures highly flammable 1,3 butadiene, a probable carcinogen used to produce synthetic rubber, plastics, and other chemicals. Some of the equipment destroyed in last week’s explosion and fire contained asbestos, another carcinogen linked to the development of mesothelioma.
According to the Texas Tribune, the plant has been out of compliance with federal clean air laws since the EPA’s last inspection in August 2017. Data from state regulators also indicate that the facility has emitted more pollution – including butadiene – than its permit allows a total of five times just this year alone
TPC Deploying Clean-Up Crews to Affected Communities
The TPC Port Neches explosion erupted on a butadiene processing unit around 1:00 a.m. on November 27th. The initial blast sparked a massive fire and was followed by another large explosion just 13 hours later.
Two TPC employees and a contract worker suffered injuries that included burns and broken bones, but all have since been released from the hospital and are expected to recover.
The fire was not contained until last Friday morning. In the meantime, a mandatory evacuation order was issued for all homes, schools and businesses within a four-mile radius of the plant, including Port Neches, Groves, Nederland, Central Gardens, Beauxart Gardens and parts of Port Arthur.
The explosions caused severe damage to structures in those communities, and many returning evacuees found their homes and yards covered with chard debris, and in some instances, a white, chalky substance that’s most likely asbestos. Residents of the affected communities were warned not to touch any explosion-related debris and to report the presence of such materials to TPC, which has deployed clean-up crews to the area.
TPC Port Neches Plant to Remain Closed for Extended Period
So far, it’s not clear what cause the TPC explosion. Yesterday, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board confirmed that an investigative team had arrived in southeast Texas on Friday.
The TPC Port Neches facility will likely be closed for an extended period of time, although it appears the plant’s 175 workers will be paid through the end of the year.
By end of the year, “if not sooner, we hope to have a better handle on the situation at (Port Neches), including recovery team needs and potential rebuild team needs,” the TPC Group’s Chief Executive said in letter to employees obtained by Reuters.
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