UPDATE: Explosion at Texas chemicals facility

Article by Amanda Doyle

Erwin Seba/Reuters
The second explosion at the TPC facility led to the evacuation of 50,000 people

A SECOND major explosion at a chemicals facility in Port Neches, Texas, has resulted in the evacuation of 50,000 people.

The initial explosion at the Texas Petroleum Chemical (TPC) facility occurred at 01:00 local time on 27 November. There were 30 workers on-site at the time and three were injured, however TPC has said that the three injured people have now been released from hospital. A second major explosion occurred around 12 hours later and was filmed by KHOU 11, which shows a chimney crashing to the ground after it had been launched in the air. David Gonzalez, reporting for KHOU 11, said the second explosion came out of nowhere at a time when people felt that the fire had been under control.

The mandatory evacuation zone was extended to a 6.4 km radius after the second blast, which has led to the evacuation of 50,000 people. The plume from the fire could be seen as far as 80 km away. The latest reports say that the firefighters are making progress and that the fire is contained but still burning. The evacuation order has yet to be lifted. According to ABC 13, black debris has been reported floating in the air and residents have been advised not to touch it.

TPC said in a statement the explosion occurred in the South Processing Unit at a tank with finished butadiene. It doesn’t know the cause yet but is assembling a team to conduct an investigation. However, under rules finalised by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week, TPC will not be required to perform a third-party audit or a root-cause analysis, and will not be required to assess the use of safer technologies.

TPC is monitoring air quality along with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the EPA. The TCEQ said it is monitoring levels of volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and hydrogen cyanide. It said that short-term exposure to volatile organic compounds can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, shortness of breath, headaches, and nausea. Levels of 1,3-butadiene, a known carcinogen, are currently near zero parts per billion which are well below levels that could damage human health.

The Texas Tribune reported that the TPC facility has been out of compliance with clean air laws since 2017, and that it has violated its air pollution permits five times already this year. The Texas Tribune also noted that the TCEQ only issued fines for fewer than 1% of emissions events, and even then the penalties are tiny compared to profits.

Yvette Arellano, Policy Research and Grassroots Advocate at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service, said: “What we need is for the TCEQ to stop handing out air permits like candy and for the state to lift caps on financial penalties for facilities to fully enforce the letter of the law. How does a known-violator of the law keep getting permission to operate? This is not the first time TPC undermined community well-being.”

Trish Kerin, Director of IChemE’s Safety Centre, said: “Fortunately this incident did not result in fatalities, however it has resulted in significant community disruption. This incident highlights the importance of thorough process safety management, including the determination of root causes. It is good to see the CSB will investigate it so industry can learn from this. “


Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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