On the day before Thanksgiving, two explosions at a chemical plant rocked the southeast Texas town of Port Neches and the surrounding area. The explosions occurred at the Texas Petroleum Chemical (TPC) plant in Port Neches and officials were worried enough about the possibility of a series of explosions that they placed about 60,000 people under evacuation orders. The evacuation order covered areas of Jefferson County within four miles of the plant. Port Neches is located in southeast Texas, about 90 miles east of Houston, near the Louisiana state line. The evacuation covered 30,000 people in Port Neches and an additional 30,000 in four nearby towns.
The first explosion occurred just after 1 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 27. Officials said the blast, which sent plumes of fire high into the night sky, injured three workers and could be felt up to 30 miles away. That blast blew out the windows and doors of a number of nearby homes and the impact sent debris flying through the air and some frightened homeowners scrambled for cover. Several witnesses described the effect as being “kind of like a little mini earthquake.” Even by the time the sun rose, the toxic fiery plume could still be seen for miles.
A second even more massive explosion occurred Wednesday afternoon. That explosion is what caused Jefferson County officials to issue a mandatory evacuation for the four-mile radius surrounding the plant. At a press conference Wednesday evening, Judge Jeff Branick, who oversees the Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management and who is the top elected official in Jefferson County, noted that there had also been a number of smaller blasts throughout the day and the evacuation came about out of worry that they would continue all day and throughout that night. He noted, “We’re extremely grateful that nobody was killed.”
The evacuation order around the TPC plant caused thousands of people to flee their homes the day before one of the busiest holiday weekends. At the same time, local, state, federal and Red Cross officials scrambled to open shelters and send in supplies.
The Aftermath: Thanksgiving
The next day, the plant’s operator, TPC, issued a report that all of its employees had been accounted for and confirmed that two employees and a contractor had been injured, but that all three had been released from the hospital.
The plant that experienced the explosions makes chemical- and petroleum-based products. Several reports after the explosions noted that several chemicals were being stored at the facility, according to the Jefferson County Emergency Management coordinator, including Butadiene, a colorless gas with a gasoline-like odor. It is still not clear what caused the first explosion, which happened in a distillation tower in an area of the plant that processes Butadiene.
Butadiene is commonly used in the production of certain types of synthetic rubber products, including tires, but it is also commonly used in the production of plastics and other chemicals. Long-term exposure to Butadiene has been linked to many illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and cancer, but it can also lead to significant nervous system damage. Thankfully, air quality readings in the immediate area of the plant do not indicate high enough levels to cause health problems.
Thankful For Few Injuries
In addition to the three injured workers at the plant, the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency reported that five residents were being treated for minor injuries, mostly because of shattered glass.
The state of Texas has seen several petrochemical industry blazes so far in 2019, including a fire last March that burned for days near Houston, which led to several criminal charges related to water pollution being brought against the owner of the oil storage facility, due to chemicals which leeched into and contaminated a local waterway. There was another explosion at a plant in Crosby, Texas several months later, which killed one worker.
Because of the frequency of fires and explosions, in fact, residents who live near these huge oil and chemical plants, especially those in parts of southeast and east Texas have become somewhat conditioned to both fires and false alarms. In Jefferson County alone, there are four refineries and 32 chemical plants, and plant explosions have become part of the local folklore, starting with the worst industrial accident in American which occurred in Texas City, located about 100 miles west of Port Neches on April 16, 1947. That accident killed hundreds of people after a blast on a ship carrying ammonium nitrate set off a series of huge fires.