68ºF

‘Contained status’: Evacuation order lifted for residents near Port Neches chemical plant, officials say

PORT NECHES, TexasWhat you should know:

  • There is asbestos possibly on people’s homes and yards now. Officials are warning people to not touch anything that looks suspicious, and to call the TPC Hotline: 866-601-5880 for cleanup.
  • Multiple explosions happened at a Texas Petrochemicals Group plant in Port Neches Wednesday
  • Mandatory evacuations are in place for people within a 4-mile radius of the blast site.
  • 3 people were injured and several nearby businesses and homeowners saw property damage

The Latest:

Families in Port Neches and surrounding areas are finally allowed to return home, but authorities are warning of potential asbestos contamination on homes.

If residents suspect anything suspicious on their property or inside their homes, they’re urged to call the TPC hotline at 866-601-5880 for cleanup.

TPC Group Director of Health Safety and Security Tommy Monk said residents who return home could find a white, chalky material on your property or in your home. Monk said not to touch it.

“Any debris or any suspected debris needs to be left alone,” TPC Group Director of Health Safety and Security Tommy Monk said. “Any debris that you have is potentially contaminated debris and there’s two issues. One, we don’t want anyone that’s not qualified to remove that material to remove it and expose themselves and two, this debris, if it contaminated, has to be disposed of properly.”

The massive Texas chemical plant fire that rocked a Gulf Coast town is finally considered contained after more than two days and an evacuation order impacting some 50,000 people has been lifted, officials said Friday in a press conference.

“We are in a position to say it’s contained. We feel comfortable with the efforts that have been made by our firefighters,” Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said at a news conference.

Branick said residents should still avoid the area around the TPC Group plant about 80 miles east of Houston. He said fires remain in the facility but are isolated.

Officials said there are still smaller gas pressure fire burning more than two days after the initial explosion at the TPC chemical plant. Fire officials reported that they have been dousing the flames with 35,000 gallons of water a minute. They’ve now been able to lower that amount of water to 19,000 gallons of water per minute. Officials said they are confident the chances of another widespread explosion.

There is a quarter mile radius restricted area around the plant. Officials said anyone who lives in that are will have to show identification with an address to show they live in the area.

Officials said air monitoring continued through Thursday morning and results indicated no human health concerns.

The suspected cause of the initial explosion is still under investigation.

What happened?

At about 1 a.m. Wednesday, the community of Port Neches was rocked by a massive, fiery explosion in a processing unit at the Texas Petrochemicals Group (TPC) operations plant located at 2102 TX-136 Spur.

Two employees of TPC and one contractor were injured in the explosion, a TPC official told KPRC 2. All three personnel were taken to a hospital and have since been released.

Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality are monitoring air quality as massive plumes of smoke have billowed out of the flaming plant all day. As of 6:30 a.m. Thursday morning, officials say air quality is still fine and no dangerous chemicals are saturating the air.

For latest updates from officials, you can monitor the Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management Facebook Page.

BELOW: See photos of smoke and flames billowing from TPC plant on fire Wednesday

Evacuations

On Wednesday, Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick issued a mandatory evacuation at about 3:30 p.m. for people within a 4-mile radius of the TPC group plant. This evacuation order reportedly affects people living in the communities of Port Neches, Groves, Nederland, Central Gardens, Beauxart Gardens, and the northeast part of Port Arthur due to the potential for more explosions.

“There were more than two explosions...What was likely the fourth explosion launched a column like a missile. If one of those columns were to launch again and land in a tank farm, it would have a more catastrophic outcome,” Branick told KPRC2.

The people who exempt from evacuation orders include nursing homes, refining facilities, patients in the hospital and health care workers.

Part of the evacuation zone fell within Orange County, however officials with Orange County said it’s unpopulated marshland and so they did not evacuate people from the area.

The map below illustrates the area that falls under the mandatory evacuations Wednesday:

The American Red Cross of Southeast Texas relocated the evacuation shelter to the First Baptist Church in Nederland to accommodate all the evacuees. An emergency shelter was opened at Ford Park at 5115 Interstate 10 Access Road to help displaced residents.

In a 7:30 p.m. press conference, officials urged residents not to worry about their belongings and said they have added patrols in the evacuated area to prevent looting. A curfew put in place on Wednesday from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Thursday morning has since been lifted.

Fire-fighting effort

As of 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, officials say three tanks at the TPC plant are on fire. They are believed to contain various hydrocarbons but especially butadiene, a feed stock used to make rubber.

Since the first explosion at 1 a.m., there have been multiple explosions — of differing sizes — at the plant. A big one in the afternoon caused a tower to “torpedo" up into the air toward a nearby high school, Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said in a press conference. As a result, officials decided to evacuate the area around the plant to avoid any injuries in the event that it happened again.

The plant lost power at some point during the fire fighting effort and so officials can no longer monitor how much butadiene is left in the containers on fire. As a result, they don’t have a time frame for how much longer the fires may continue.

Crews are operating water cannons remotely to douse surrounding tanks with water to keep the cool so that they don’t ignite from the heat of the flames. However, without power in the plant, they are working the dark, officials said.

The areas of the plant that were impacted in the fire are blocks 5, 9 and 10, officials said in a press conference Thursday. While the fire is well on its way to being contained, officials say it is not yet under control.

Governor Greg Abbott pledged the state’s support to help Jefferson County officials and families impacted. In a tweet, he said his staff is working to ensure crews have all the resources they need to respond to the massive fire.

RELATED: What we know about Butadiene, the chemical burning at the plant

Lawsuit

A class-action lawsuit was filed against the Texas Petrochemicals Group (TPC) on behalf of the residents of Port Neches whose property was damaged as a result of multiple explosions at a chemical plant in Port Neches. The lawsuit claims some of the homeowners saw blown-out windows and doors and damaged roofs as a result of the explosions.

A temporary restraining order was also filed against TPC to preserve evidence for further investigation. The class-action lawsuit was filed by Provost Humphreys law firm and in a press release Wednesday evening they also said they have retained “explosion experts” and “process safety engineers," among other experts to help residents.

Earlier on Wednesday, TPC also established a community assistance helpline for residents who were impacted by the explosions. You can call the TPC Community Assitance Helpline at 866-601-5880 to file a claim with the company’s insurance provider.

Residents’ reactions

Some people on social media shared photos of the damage to their homes that they say was caused by the explosions from the plant. Others said the blasts lit up the night sky with orange flames and filled it with thick smoke.

Resident Steven Belrose lives near the plant and happened to be awake at the time of the explosion.

Belrose said he felt his entire house shake and because he has lived around refineries for so long, immediately assumed there had been an explosion.

When he turned on the news and didn’t see any information, he drove over to the plant where he saw flames coming from the plant, Belrose said.

“...It was nothing but just a huge, huge, almost white-ish ball of flames just billowing into the air,” Belrose said. “(It) just lit up the entire sky ... I didn’t see anything like that before.”

Belrose said his church is about an eighth of a mile away from the plant and the explosion blew out all the windows around the outside of the church.

“It puts a lot of fear in a lot of families because their husbands and wives and children work in these refineries," Belrose said. "It’s a very dangerous job.”

Mindy Vandevender told KPRC 2 that she and her husband, who works for the plant, listened to officials and evacuated despite the inconvenience.

“We were in the middle of cooking Thanksgiving dinner when they gave the evacuation,” Vandevender said. “They gave a mandatory evacuation so when they do that they need to heed the warning."

She wasn’t alone. Christopher Davies left with his wife and children as soon as they could.

“We just fueled up, and we’re going to meet family in Houston instead of them coming t our house,” Davies said.

But other residents, like Austin Guerrero from Nederland, the decision wasn’t so easy.

“Just because it’s home, and I really don’t want to be anywhere else,” he said.

About the company and the chemical

TPC Group says on its website that it provides a diverse range of quality products to chemical and petroleum-based companies worldwide. The site says the company employs more than 175 full-time employees and 50 contractors.

INVESTIGATION: Inside the history of violations of the TCP chemical plant

TPC Group Executive Director Toby Parker released the following statement after the explosion on Wednesday morning.

“Within the last year, I have witnessed an unacceptable trend of significant incidents impacting the Gulf Coast region. While not all emergency events may be prevented, it is imperative that industry be accountable and held to the highest standard of compliance to ensure the safety of the state’s citizens and the protection of the environment. At this time, the TCEQ is focused on emergency response efforts, including evaluating real-time air quality data. As this situation transitions back to normal operations and post-event remediation, all agency authority will be assessed with the aim of achieving comprehensive compliance given the presence of the petrochemical industry in Texas.”

KPRC 2′s Rose-Ann Aragon, Phil Archer and Daniela Sternitsky-Di Napoli all contributed to this article.


About the Authors: