No fatalities and relatively few injuries were the chief blessings for which residents gave thanks after several massive explosions and more than five days of raging fire at the TPC Group petrochemical plant forced many to spend the Thanksgiving holidays elsewhere.
An initial explosion rocked the plant site and much of the surrounding region at about 1 a.m. on Thanksgiving Eve, Nov. 27. Of an estimated 30 people working in the process unit that was ground zero for the first blast, two TPC employees and a contractor suffered injuries.
Although one of the TPC employees was transferred from Beaumont to a Houston hospital, all three were released after treatment.
Both Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick and Port Neches Mayor Glenn Johnson live close enough to the petrochemical plant to have been rudely awakened by the blast.
"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 told reporters that the pressure wave from the explosion blew in the front and back doors of his home. Property damage of the same caliber — broken windows, collapsed ceiling — was reported throughout the affected communities.
Thirteen hours later a second explosion powerful enough to launch a distillation tower like a rocket triggered a mandatory evacuation of all homes and businesses within a four-mile radius of TPC. The evacuation order affected tens of thousands living in the communities of Port Neches, Groves, Nederland and the northern portion of Port Arthur.
After more than 42 hours in effect, the evacuation order was lifted Friday morning save for various road closings near the plant that remain in effect.
In a televised press conference prior to the second explosion, Judge Branick made no secret of his reservations about imposing such an evacuation order.
"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."
With so much residential damage after the Wednesday morning explosion, Branick said that many would be reluctant to leave their homes vulnerable to looters.
Information released by TPC states that the plant consists of 102 storage tanks, either pressurized spherical tanks or the flat, round type that operate at atmospheric pressure. Eighty-eight tanks, of which 71 were spherical, contained chemicals when the fire broke out.
Chemicals stored at TPC included raffinate, a liquified petroleum gas similar to butane; butadiene, a liquified petroleum gas similar to propane; poly blends, which are the heavier components of unrefined gas; crude C4, an unrefined gas mixture; and rich solvent, a chemical used to separate the products. All five chemicals are volatile.
In the first two days of the emergency, nine spherical tanks had in some way been impacted by the explosions and fire, ranging from smoke discoloration to ignition. Of those tanks, four contained raffinate, two butadiene, one crude C4, one poly blends, and one rich solvent.
Of the nine, the worst damage involved a spherical tank containing raffinate that ruptured, TPC states.
Of 17 atmospheric storage tanks on site, two containing the solvent NMP ruptured. Those tanks were part of the processing unit where the initial fire and explosion occurred.
Damage was so widespread that both the primary and secondary locations specified for the emergency operations center proved unusable, Troy Monk, director of health, safety and security for TPC Group, said. Instead, the EOC was established at the Huntsman chemical plant, a mutual aid partner to TPC.
"Best laid plans, right," Monk said.
Throughout the emergency firefighters took a defensive stance rather than directly attacking the flames. Monk told reporters early on that the ferocity of the fire prevented responders from making a closer inspection.
"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," Monk said.
While early air monitoring indicated nothing dangerous, Monk warned residents to take seriously the shelter-in-place order issued by the county.
"The most common thing is going to be respiratory 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 that is an irritant."
Monk identified butadiene as one of the chemicals burning after the first night of the fire. It is listed as a known carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and other agencies.
Asked about black debris or 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, evaluate it and arrange for disposal," Monk said. "We certainly don't want people touching it with their bare hands because it could be contaminated."
A press release issued Dec. 1 by TPC Group states that asbestos insulation may be included among debris from the initial explosion hurled into nearby neighborhoods. In response, TPC hired consultants from the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health in Kemah, Texas, to conduct air sampling.
"Air sampling continues to verify no measurable concentrations of airborne asbestos fibers," the TPC Group release states. "Given the nature of asbestos, we have urged people not to try to attempt to clean up the debris themselves."
Ten days after the initial explosion at TPC small fires continue to burn inside the damaged plant. Air monitoring continues to be a concern after elevated levels of butadiene led to officials issuing a voluntary evacuation order Wednesday (Dec. 4).
Levels detected were enough to cause mild, reversible irritation but were far below amounts that could cause long-term health risks, officials said. Repairs to a leaking pressure valve brought levels down and the evacuation was rescinded Thursday.
Plans call for the safe transfer of all remaining chemicals on site to another location, a press release from the county states. Tanks still containing materials are being prioritized based on mechanical integrity inspections.