TPC Group’s Lax Environmental Record Demands Accountability

Port Neches plant is a repeat violator

By Zona Martin

On November 27, 2019, a vapor cloud hovering over a butadiene unit ignited and exploded at the Texas Petroleum Chemical (TPC) Group’s plant in Port Neches, Texas directly injuring three workers and releasing dangerous levels of 1,3-Butadiene and asbestos into the air.

A mandatory evacuation advisory was ordered for tens of thousands of residents within a four-mile radius due to the toxic chemicals released across an area encompassing parts of Port Neches, Port Arthur, Nederland, Groves, Central Gardens, and Beauxart Gardens. A colorless gas, 1,3-Butadiene can irritate to the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. Higher or longer-term exposure can cause vertigo, nausea, low blood pressure, fainting, and even cancer.

Investigators found the explosion was caused in part by negligence of chemical plant safety regulations. TPC Group has repeatedly been cited over the years for various safety violations. In a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after it found TPC Group was releasing butadiene into the air rather than safely burning it, TPC Group was required to implement a monitoring system to assess butadiene levels and take measures to reduce the emissions. For months before the explosion, TPC Group reported higher than normal butadiene emissions, yet took no effective measures to reduce them. On September 27, at the highest peak of emissions before the explosion, TPC reported 10 instances throughout the day of excess emissions of butadiene, reaching at one point 14,846 parts per billion.

Upon inspection by OSHA following the Thanksgiving explosion, TPC Group was cited for nine serious violations and three willful citations totaling $514,692 in fines. The majority of the violations were cited as a failure to have written operating and safety procedures for the equipment on site, documentation that the employees underwent training and understood the operating procedures, and clear instructions and conditional guidelines for emergency shutdown procedures. TPC was also cited for failing to correct deficiencies in any equipment operating outside of the defined acceptable limits. While a half-million dollars may seem like a hefty fine, many argue that OSHA was too lenient, as other OSHA violation cases this year have resulted in  significantly higher fines. For example, Purvis Home Improvement, Co., Inc. was fined $1,792,726 for failing to enforce the mandatory use of fall protection equipment for their construction workers. While Purvis Home Improvement, Co. was fined nearly $2 million for their violations on two construction sites, TPC Group in Port Neches was fined less than half that amount for a massive explosion that affected the health, safety, and financial wellbeing of an entire town’s residents. 

Considering the significant impacts the explosion in Port Neches had on area residents and TPC Group’s history of negligence for safety standards, it’s time to demand that TPC Group is held accountable for endangering the public. 

Zona Martin is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin and a Public Citizen intern in the summer of 2020.