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TPC Port Neches Plant Explosion Leaves Asbestos-Tainted Debris in its Wake


Now that southeast Texas residents affected by the TPC Port Neches plant explosion have been allowed to return to their homes, many are facing a new danger – asbestos.

Equipment Destroyed in TPC Explosion Contained Asbestos

The November 27th explosion and fire at the TPC Group’s petrochemical plant injured three workers and forced more than 60,000 residents of Port Neches, Groves, Nederland, Central Gardens, Beauxart Gardens, and parts of Port Arthur to evacuate their homes through Thanksgiving Day. They were not permitted to return until Friday, when the fire was mostly contained.

The blast caused severe damage to those nearby communities and littered streets, automobiles, houses, and yards with charred debris. According to Jefferson County officials, some of the equipment destroyed in the explosion contained asbestos, a mineral known to cause a deadly cancer called mesothelioma.

“This facility was begun during the ’40s and there was some asbestos, either some blanket pipe coverings or block that was installed,” Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said during a Saturday news conference. “One of the vessels that was compromised and had an explosion could have sent that asbestos in the neighborhoods and yards of Port Neches, or even Nederland and Port Arthur.”

Returning Evacuees Warned Not to Touch Explosion Debris

Returning evacuees had already been warned not to touch explosion-related debris and report the presence of any materials on their property to TPC. On Saturday, however, officials advised those in the affected communities to be especially cautious of any chalky, white substance, as it’s likely asbestos.

“Specialists will be assessing homes and yards within approximately one-half mile of the TPC Port Neches Operations fence line,” TPC Group said in an update. “Please be aware that the cleanup specialists are required to wear protective clothing to remove debris beyond the fence line. We expect assessments and clean up to begin immediately.”

Other Chemicals Involved in TPC Port Neches Plant Explosion

The TPC Port Neches plant explosion occurred on a unit that processes butadiene, another known carcinogen.

The plant apparently housed 102 storage tanks prior to the disaster, but only 88 actually contained any chemicals. They included 71 highly pressurized spherical tanks that held either raffinate, butadiene, heavy polyblends, and a gas mixture of unrefined petrochemicals called crude C4. Nine were impacted by the fire, including a raffinate tank that completely ruptured.

Seventeen additional tanks contained chemicals at lower pressure levels, including ethanol, the fuel additive MTBE, a water treatment chemical, and a solvent called NMP. It appears two NMP tanks ruptured in the initial explosion, but the remaining 15 were unaffected.

Throat Irritation, Other Symptoms May be Explosion-Related

While the TPC fire was largely contained when residents began returning Friday, a handful of smaller residual fires continued to burn on the property throughout the weekend. With smoke lingering in the air, authorities suggested those in close proximity might experience lung and throat irritation, nausea, headaches, and other symptoms.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring air quality at 207 sites in the area. While monitors have not picked up any volatile chemicals, traces of cyanide have been detected at two sites in Beaumont had traces of cyanide. It’s not clear, however, if the cyanide originated with the TPC plant explosion.

So far, the monitoring has not picked up any airborne asbestos.

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