Like many other small towns along the western Gulf Coast in Texas and my native Louisiana that are dominated by the petrochemical industry, folks in Port Neches, Texas, used to breathe in the occasional noxious odors from its biggest employer — a giant, aging facility belonging to the TPC Group — and considered it the smell of money.
At first, residents’ faith in the petrochemical plant wasn’t even rattled by the pre-Thanksgiving explosion at the plant last November that not only produced dramatic video footage of part of the facility getting blown skyward but shook nearby homes — damaging many of them — and forced residents to evacuate town ahead of the holiday.
But now, just four months later — according to a recent lengthy report in a local paper, the Beaumont Enterprise — some community members are fed up and angry. Some are becoming unlikely activists, pleading their case for much stricter pollution controls on the TPC facility and for more stringent reporting rules, while criticizing the offers the company has made to repair homes that were damaged in the Nov. 27 blast.
“I think people feel they’ve been forgotten. I think they feel they’ve been betrayed…,” Suzanne Williamson, who lives just over two miles from the plant, told the newspaper. “Our system is designed to elect people who will speak up for you. I know a lot of people have told me they feel that’s not happening and it’s frustrating to them.”
Williamson admits she knew nothing about the environmental regulations covering the oil and gas industry before that fateful morning, when she heard a strange sound at 1 a.m. and then felt a force that “seemed like a car hit my house going 100 miles an hour.” In the weeks following the blast, Williamson travelled to the state capitol in Austin for a public hearing on TPC’s earlier pollution violations and showed commissioners there a homemade poster of the explosion’s closeness to the local football field.
“I feel that I have to do everything I can, talk to every lawmaker, talk to every TCEQ person, the Texas attorney general — whoever will listen, because I owe it to my son to look him in the eye and tell him I did everything I possibly could to fight for (his) health while (he sits) in school, which is state mandated,” she said. “What else am I going to do?” She wants both better monitoring of the plant and tougher fines for violations.
As I wrote in a post earlier this year, TPC had promised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it would aggressively monitor the air surrounding the facility for 1,3 butadiene — a highly flammable, carcinogenic chemical that had been repeatedly leaking from the site – and respond quickly to any problems.
But no such thing happened. Records obtained last year by the Texas Tribune show that toxic air pollution emissions at the Port Neches plant skyrocketed when they were supposed to be falling. On at least three days in the summer and fall of 2019, levels of butadiene at the plant’s fence line spiked to as much as 29 times the level that scientists believe is safe for short-term human exposure.
Such revelations have surely played a role in changing local attitudes about the TPC plant, as has growing disenchantment with the extent of offers the company has made to pay for damages to their homes — many of which saw cracks, damaged roofs or more serious structural damage from the force of the November blast.
Marcia Sharp, the principal of a local elementary school, was out of town when the explosion occurred less than a mile from her home but told the newspaper that her 88-year-old mother, who was there, was both traumatized by blast that blew their door off its hinges, and possibly sickened by the butadiene fumes that dizzied her for days.
“Medically, my mom hasn’t been the same since,” Sharp said. “She used to stay by herself and cook for herself before. Now, she has severe anxiety.” She said the explosion and her dealings with the company in the aftermath have changed how she views the company and her reaction to the periodic pollution incidents there.
“I hope our lives come back to normal at some point, but my life has been severely disrupted,” she said. “I can’t really imagine that happening anytime soon.”
Sharp’s neighbor in Port Neches, Daniel Reynolds, also says that he’s campaigning for tougher pollution laws, with requirements that community members be notified of a leak, and for stricter enforcement by state environmental authorities.
“There are guidelines,” he said. “How come all these other plants haven’t blown up? They’ve done what they’re supposed to. Continually violating the Clean Air Act, that’s a big deal. That, to me, if you look at that and then look at the rest of this process, it’s all so in line. Why do we expect anything different?”