BY KIAH COLLIER
Another Houston chemical plant explosion. The Port Neches chemical plant where two explosions and an ongoing fire prompted widespread mandatory evacuations on Nov. 25 has a years-long history of state and federal environmental violations.
The facility owned by Houston-based Texas Petroleum Chemicals, or TPC Group, which manufactures highly flammable 1,3 butadiene, has been considered a high priority violator by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more than two years, and been out of compliance with federal clean air laws since the agency’s last inspection in August 2017. State data shows the facility has reported spewing more air pollution than allowed by its government-issued permits five times this year, including hundreds of pounds of butadiene.
Though the exact cause of the fire and explosions, which injured several workers and residents, is still unknown, local emergency response officials said it had been traced to a processing unit that produces the colorless gas, which is used to make rubber and plastics and is a known human carcinogen. The first explosion took place around 1 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 25.
The second occurred that afternoon, prompting mandatory evacuations within a four-mile radius of the plant in Port Neches, Groves, Nederland and northern Port Arthur. For most of the next 48 hours, approximately 50,000 people were forced out of their homes.
Together, the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental regulatory agency, have fined TPC for air emissions violations more than half a dozen times in the past five years after finding many of the missteps preventable.
But environmental and consumer advocacy groups on Wednesday said that those penalties — which add up to less than $200,000 — are nowhere near enough to deter a company that brings in billions of dollars a year from taking corrective actions.
“When you look at all these facilities and their compliance histories, it’s like a rap sheet,” said Elena Craft, senior director for climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund. “And of course we see many times these bad actors that continue to have violations and ultimately this can lead to the kind of major disasters like the explosion last night.”
Houston chemical plant explosion, latest in a long line
There have been multiple, major fires and explosions at Texas chemical plants in recent years that have resulted in injuries and deaths, particularly in the Houston area.
Some of this year’s headline grabbing explosions and fires included the March 17 fire at Intercontinental Terminals Co.’s Deer Park facility.
The ITC fire burned for three days and pumped enough black smoke into the atmosphere that the plume could be seen in Downtown Houston, 20 miles away. As high-profile as the ITC fire became, it wasn’t the Houston-are’s worst industrial accident of the year.
In August, an explosion at an ExxonMobil plant Baytown plant injured 66 people. Like with Port Neches, many of the facilities that caught fire this year had long histories of repeat violations.
A 2017 investigation by The Texas Tribune found that the TCEQ, which is responsible for administering federal clean air laws, fined fewer than 1 percent of so-called “emissions events” — when a facility emits more air pollution than is allowed by its permits — in 2016. When it did fine companies, those penalties often make up a sliver of revenues and profits — and the commission often waives a portion of them if the companies agree to address the underlying issue in a timely manner.
The two fines TCEQ handed down to TPC Group this year were for $13,688 and $7,500, but the agency agreed to defer one-third of the amount.
The EPA, TCEQ and TPC Group didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In an incident update posted to its website Wednesday morning, TPC, which celebrated its 75th birthday this year, said it “sincerely remains focused on protecting the safety of responders and the public and minimizing any impact to the environment.”
In a written statement, Catherine Fraser of Environment Texas said “Disasters like these are terrifying and unacceptable, and the TCEQ and EPA need to take much tougher enforcement actions and strengthen safety regulations, like the Chemical Disaster Rule, to build safer and healthier communities.”
The Port Neches incident comes a week after the EPA gutted the so-called Chemical Disaster Rule. A series of safety regulations enacted in the waning days of the Obama administration.
Although the rules weren’t adopted until 2017, they were proposed after the West Fertilizer Company explosion in West, Texas. In 2013, an arsonist set fire to the plant.
Within 20 minutes, the flames hit an unknown amount of ammonium nitrate. The explosion hit with the force of about 10 tons of TNT and left a 93 foot crater.
The fireball killed 15 people, injured another 160 people, and destroyed 150 buildings. The resulting rules changest strengthened a decades-old EPA program designed to prevent and mitigate chemical disasters.
The Chemical Disaster Rule would have required companies to study ways to avoid incidents by using better technology or less risky chemicals, be more transparent about what types of chemicals they store on site to aid first responders in case of an incident — and to do third-party audits and root-cause analyses afterwards if one were to occur.
As authorities investigate the cause of the Nov. 25 Houston chemical plant explosion, it’s difficult to say whether the Port Neches incident could have been prevented if the rule had been in effect.
But Heather McTeer Toney, who was a regional administrator for the EPA under the Obama administration, said, “what we can say with all certainty is that rules like this are critical to ensuring that we’re at least aware and are doing everything that we can to prevent these types of explosions.”