East Texas communities ordered evacuated after second massive explosion at TPC Group chemical plant
UPDATE: A mandatory evacuation of Port Neches and Groves has been ordered after the second massive explosion to rip through the burning TPC refinery since 1 a.m. Wednesday (Nov. 27).
The latest explosion rocked the refinery at about 2 p.m. Wednesday. Both communities had been under a shelter-in-place order after the initial blast but the order was lifted shortly before 10 a.m. The shelter-in-place order remained in effect for Jefferson County from the TPC plant southwest to north of State Highway 73.
Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick ordered the evacuation.
PORT NECHES, TX - At least three storage tanks may be burning at a petrochemical plant in Port Neches, TX, the flames triggered by an explosion Wednesday morning (Nov. 27) so severe that widespread residential damage has been reported.
Troy Monk, director of health, safety and security for TPC Group, told reporters that the ferocity of the fire prevented responders from making a closer inspection.
“I think we know of at least three of our tanks that were involved but we’ve not been able to get in,” Monk said. “It is very difficult for us to say what pieces of equipment have been involved to any extent.”
Monk identified the burning chemical to be butadiene, listed as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and other agencies.
A shelter-in-place order issued for the city of Groves and Orange County was lifted shortly before 10 a.m. today. However, the shelter-in-place remains in effect for Jefferson County from the TPC plant southwest to north of State Highway 73.
An evacuation order encompassing a half-mile radius of the plant remains in effect.
At a press conference held nearly nine hours into the emergency, Monk said the strategy employed by firefighting continues to be defensive rather than directly attacking the flames.
“We have taken the best defensive position we can to initiate cooling, isolate as much as we can so we don’t continue to feed the fire, then develop a strategy by which we can take emergency responders into the hot zone and begin to snuff the fire out,” he said.
Of an estimated 30 people working in the processing area where the blast occurred, two TPC employees and a contractor suffered injuries. Although one of the TPC employees was transferred from a local hospital to Houston all three casualties were released after treatment.
The explosion rocked the 218-acre plant site and much of the surrounding community at about 1 a.m. Wednesday. Among those rudely awakened were Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick and Port Neches Mayor Glenn Johnson.
“I was one of those that live within half a mile of the event,” Johnson said. “I understand what getting blown out of bed means now.”
Branick awoke to find both the front and back door of his home blown in by the blast. He praised TPC Group for taking immediate action to create a hotline where property damage could be reported.
“The damage to homes has been significant,” Branick said.
One early change in disaster planning happened when damage proved so widespread that both the primary and second locations planned for the emergency operations center proved unusable. Instead, EOC was established in the administration building at the nearby Huntsman chemical plant, a mutual aid partner in the emergency.
“Best laid plans, right,” Monk said.
TCP initiated air monitoring soon after the explosion, Monk said. While nothing dangerous has been detected he warned residents to take the shelter-in-place order seriously.
“The most common thing is going to be respiratory-type irritation which is mostly from the smoke, not necessarily the chemical itself,” he said. “You have to understand that the chemical is actually being consumed by part of the fire. Unfortunately, this type of fire produces smoke and that is an irritant.”
With so much property damage, some residents may be reluctant to leave their property vulnerable to looting, Banick said.
“The truth of the matter is in any emergency you can’t utilize your law enforcement to remove people who won’t obey an evacuation order,” he said. “People need to exercise caution and understand that a significant event has occurred.”
Expected rains will help to dissipate the smoke plume, Monk said. He discounted concern that the rain mixing with the smoke may create something hazardous at ground level.
“Rain is going to be our friend in this particular instance,” he said.
Asked about a black residue being found on homes and lawns in the wake of the fire, Monk advised not to touch it.
“Call the hotline and if we need to we will come out and evaluate it and arrange for disposal,” he said. “We certainly don’t want people touching it with their bare hands because it could be contaminated.”
Monk would not commit to a timetable as to when the emergency might end. Volunteers from Beaumont and Houston are being held in reserve in case the flames last beyond the present fire crew can without a shift change.
“If this turns into more hours we’re going to have to start looking at longer term strategies as far as relieving personnel,” he said.