After evacuation orders lifted, some Port Neches families return to damaged homes, air quality fears

PORT NECHES, Texas – Evacuation orders were lifted Friday morning for the neighborhoods around the Port Neches plant that exploded Wednesday, however, many residents are returning to their homes with fresh concerns about air quality and asbestos.

While small gas fires are still burning inside the chemical plant, authorities said they no longer feel there is a threat of additional explosions.

“Great progress has been made over the 12 hours…better than we had hoped,” said Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick.

During a Friday morning press conference, TPC assured the public that the threat of further explosions is gone. The plant was rocked by two major explosions and a few smaller ones Wednesday, triggering the evacuation of about 50,000 residents from Port Neches and surrounding communities.

“There is still going to be smoke in the air,” said Troy Monk, TPC’s director of health, safety and security. “There are still going to be flames visible at night.”

Authorities cautioned that one restricted area is still off-limits to the general public and limited access will be granted to people who live there, so long as they show identification. Those areas includes:

  • Spur 136, north of FM 366
  • North end of Magnolia Ave (FM 366) at Park Street.
  • No southbound access on FM 366 & Hogaboom
  • Grigsby Ave & Spur 136
  • Main Street is accessible up to Ave K & Ave L & Park

“I’m not asking, I’m telling you people. Stay away,” said Port Neches Mayor Glenn Johnson. “No looky loos.”

Concerns about air quality and asbestos

Fires have been burning at the TPC plant for close to three days now, worrying residents — many of whom work at plants themselves— about what could be in the air they are returning to.

“You can’t tell me the butadiene, the raffinate, stuff that was burning does not put off cancerous smoke,” said resident Doug Anderson.

He returned to home with his wife Friday, after evacuating after the second explosion Wednesday. His son, Trent, doesn’t feel safe enough to go back to his own home so he’s staying with his parents for now. Trent’s home is less than a quarter of a mile away from the still-burning plant.

“My windows were blown…front door blown off the hinge and all that (smoke) coming in my house, I’m wondering can I come back? Is it livable?” Trent said.

The younger Anderson says he called the TPC hotline residents were told to contact. He was given a queue number and informed that TPC would get back to him.

“Who do I need to talk to disinfect my house or clean my house?” Trent said.

During Friday’s press conference, the mayor of neighboring Port Arthur echoed residents’ worries.

“The main concern we have in Port Arthur now is air monitoring,” said Mayor Thurman Bartie.

Branick asked residents to look for debris in their yards that may contain asbestos, including white, chalky powder or industrial debris like pipes or foam coverings.

“If you find that upon the return to your home, please contact the number of the TPC helpline,” Branick said. “Do not touch it. They will come to your house and do air monitoring.”

Branick also tried to quiet concerns over air quality, saying they currently meet all state and federal guidelines.

“I work in a plant,” said Trent. “I see these things. I find it very hard to believe that everything was just low numbers.”

Environmental testing

The Environmental Protection Agency and the state have both been on the ground since Wednesday’s explosions, officials said. The EPA said crews are monitoring the air with an aircraft and has personnel at the site.

“The Agency has been using the ASPECT plane and had ground teams conducting air monitoring in the vicinity of TPC and downwind community,” EPA officials told KPRC 2 in a statement. “The State and TPC are also conducting handheld monitoring and collecting data downwind and in the community.”

Judge Branick also confirmed water in the area is being tested.