At TPC Group’s massive, aging petrochemical plant in Port Neches. Texas, near the Gulf Coast, tit was not supposed to be like this. In 2017, the company reached a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to aggressively monitor the air surrounding the facility for 1,3 butadiene — a highly flammable, carcinogenic chemical that had been leaking from the site — and to take speedy corrective action when there was a violation.
What happened next is truly incredible. Records obtained by the Texas Tribune show that instead of going down, toxic emissions at the Port Neches plant soared. 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.
Those findings should have set off all sorts of bells and whistles. Instead, TPC Group appears to have had no success in curbing the releases of butadiene, while regulators appear to have been unaware of the pollution spikes. After a sharp increase in the number of violations in October 2019, no data at all was reported during the month of November.
Early in the morning of Nov. 27 – the day before Thanksgiving – people in Port Neches were awakened by a loud blast from the plant, that was followed by a second explosion hours later. Dramatic video of the incident shows a large piece of a plant tower shooting off like a spaceship. Frightened residents were ordered to leave the community — about 12 miles from Beaumont — and spend the holiday with relatives.
The Tribune reports that investigators are trying to find if there’s a connection between the rising emissions of butadiene — which experts say are likely the result of mechanical failures and possibly the old age of the plant – and the explosions. Environmental scientists say the reports should have triggered action before the plant blew up.
“The levels that they were measuring were shockingly high,” said Neil Carman, a former Texas pollution inspector who today heads the clean air program for the Sierra Club in the region, told the Tribune. “This is a sign that there were some major problems going on at the plant.”
I’ve been writing about America’s petrochemical plants – especially the ones in my native state of Louisiana, which line the banks of the Mississippi River and have earned the nickname of “Cancer Alley” for their dangerous pollution of the region’s air and water – because the nation’s energy boom has also caused an increase in health risks.
The TPC (Texas Petroleum Chemical) Group plant is a classic example. The 1,3 butadiene it produces — a colorless gas that’s used to manufacture rubber and plastics — is highly dangerous; scientists believe that exposure to even relatively low levels of the chemical over a long period of time can cause cancer.
According to the Tribune report, levels of butadiene that were detected by four new gas chromatographs on the outer border of the Port Neches plant — required as part of the 2017 agreement — were on a number of occasions high enough to cause acute short-term damage to humans, such as eye and lung irritation.
The pollution problems at Port Neches were no secret. Over the five years prior to November’s explosion, according to the Texas Tribune, the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, have cited the plant more than a half-dozen times. But critics noted that the penalties imposed on TPC Group for these often-significant environmental infractions were usually a small slap-on-the-wrist, especially when compared against the millions of dollars in profits raked in by the petrochemical company.
If you follow the news, you know there have been a number of fires and explosions at Texas petrochemical plants in recent years. Just last month, an explosion at a chemical plant in a densely populated Houston neighborhood killed three people and injured many others. It was less than eight years ago that a massive blast at a chemical facility in the community of West, Texas, caused 15 fatalities and sparked calls for much stricter regulations.
Instead, the opposite has happened. On the federal level, the Trump administration has overturned rules successfully implemented during the Barack Obama administration that called for stricter after-the-fact investigations of future accidents as well as public disclosure of what chemicals were stored or used at a facility. In the case of TPC’s Port Neches plant, both federal and state regulators seem to have been asleep at the wheel.
The new Texas Tribune report shows there are many more questions than answers about what happened at Port Neches in November. What is the connection between the rising number of butadiene violations at the plant and the subsequent explosions? Why didn’t TPC address what seemed to be a clear problem with leaks at the plant? And why weren’t EPA and TCEQ regulators more proactive in pursuing these violations?
The toxic smoke may have finally cleared over Port Neches, but the search for truth is just beginning.