Texas chemical blast shows we’re moving backwards on pollution, safety


Thanksgiving was cancelled in Port Neches, Texas, this year. Things ever should have gotten to this point.

Very early on the days before the holiday, this Gulf Coast community near the Texas-Louisiana border was rocked by one explosion that lit the night sky — then another, hours later. Residents of Port Neches and several surrounding communities, where windows were shattered by the force of the blast, knew the source almost immediately — the sprawling Texas Petroleum Chemical plant, a leading local employer.

Viral video of the blast showed a part of a tower at the plant shooting out like a NASA rocket. Officials told people in a wide area surrounding the petrochemical plant — about 30,000 in all — to evacuate their homes for Thanksgiving, because of fears of secondary explosions as well as the release of chemicals from the fires.

“Who knows what we’re going to do for Thanksgiving tomorrow, but we’re still preparing,” Bailey Dykes, a 23-year-old speech language pathologist who took off with other family members from Port Neches to her brother’s home in nearby Beaumont after the second blast, told the New York Times. Others were not so fortunate, spending the holiday in makeshift shelters set up by the Red Cross.

Officials who ordered the evacuations said they were worried that another explosion like the one that occurred on Tuesday could damage the tank farm at the petrochemical plant and cause a more catastrophic event. For some old-timers in the community, the explosions brought back memories of the worst chemical-plant disaster in American history which occurred not too far down the Texas coast, a 1947 explosion of a ship carrying ammonium nitrate that killed hundreds.

This time, no one was killed by the explosion in Port Neches, although several plant workers were injured. The blast came at a moment of heightened concern about the concentration of petrochemical plants both in Texas and in Louisiana, which has been hit recently by a growing protest movement against the amalgamation of plants along the Mississippi River that’s known far and wide as “Cancer Alley.”

If any facility epitomized the need for greater regulation of these petrochemical behemoths, it would be the Texas Petroleum Chemical plant. It produces highly flammable 1,3 butadiene, a colorless gas that’s used to make rubber and plastics — and is a known human carcinogen. Despite the need for such a facility to employ state-of-the-art safety standards, this plant has been a serial violator of state and federal environmental laws.

Time after time, regulators have cited Texas Petroleum Chemical, or TPC, for spewing out far more air pollution than its permit allows, even the cancer-causing butadiene. Over the last five years, according to a report in the Texas Tribune in the wake of this week’s explosions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have cited the plant more than a half-dozen times.

But environmentalists say the penalties assessed against the serial polluter have been far too tame. For example, in 2017, the EPA ordered TPC to pay a civil penalty of $72,187 and to install $275,000 of fence-line monitoring — a meager punishment when one considers the millions of dollars or profit generated by the plant.

“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. “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.”

Now here’s what makes the explosions at the Port Neches plant even more alarming: It happened against a backdrop of ever-weakening environmental enforcement, both by the federal government – and particularly the administration of President Donald Trump – and by business-friendly GOP-run states such as Texas. On the state level, the Texas Tribune has chronicled how the state agency tasked with enforcing air-pollution law — the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ — has been a paper tiger, often waiving off the tepid fines it imposes.

In Washington, just one week before the Port Neches explosions, EPA officials announced they are rolling back a series of safety regulations that were written up and imposed in the wake of 2012’s massive chemical-plant explosion in West, Texas, which killed 15 people. The rules that had been successfully implemented during the Barack Obama administration 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. Trump’s EPA, which is led by a former energy-industry lobbyist, said the 2013 rules were “unnecessary” and expensive for business.

It seems to me that not only do we not need fewer rules, but we need to do a much better job of enforcing what’s already on the books. If the people of Port Neches, Texas, had anything to be thankful for this week, it was that no one was killed by a petrochemical company’s recklessness. Until our leaders understand why it’s so important to be tougher on polluters, residents will not be so lucky the next time.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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