Explosions Rock Chemical Plant In Texas, Prompting Mass Evacuations

A blast rocked the Port Neches facility shortly after midnight Wednesday, and fears of more explosions later forced officials to order mandatory evacuations.

More than 54,000 people were ordered to evacuate on Wednesday hours after a series of explosions at a chemical plant in Texas.

Local officials announced a mandatory evacuation order for a four-mile radius around the petrochemical plant in Port Neches, about 80 miles east of Houston, just a day before the Thanksgiving holiday. The town had been rocked shortly after midnight by a large explosion that shattered windows and sent plumes of smoke into the sky. It’s unclear what caused the accident.

At least six people at the facility, which is owned by the TPC Group, were injured in the blast. No one was killed.

A large secondary explosion prompted officials to establish an evacuation zone due to worries about more accidents at the plant. Jeff Branick, the judge of Jefferson County, said he issued the order amid reports some residents had refused to leave their homes despite the threat of “imminent dangers.”

The order will remain in place for 10 days unless it is rescinded earlier.

Local reporters on the scene said many homes near the chemical plant sustained significant damage after the explosions, and local businesses were forced to board up broken windows.

Branick told The New York Times one of the explosions launched some kind of tower at the plant “like a missile” toward a local school and said he worried that another explosion could cause potentially fatal damage.

“The concern is that if another [tower] were to launch — and there are a bunch left — and it were to go into the tank farm, the results would be catastrophic,” the judge told the outlet.

About 30 people were working at the 218-acre plant at the time of the initial explosion, the TPC Group said on Wednesday. 

A process tower flies through the air after an explosion at the TPC Group Petrochemical Plant in Port Neches, Texas, on Nov.
A process tower flies through the air after an explosion at the TPC Group Petrochemical Plant in Port Neches, Texas, on Nov. 27, 2019.

The plant processes industrial chemicals, including butadiene and raffinate, a company spokesperson told 12 News, the local ABC affiliate. Reuters notes that TPC processes petrochemicals used in the production of synthetic rubber, nylon and plastics, among other applications.

“There is no new news in terms of the incident and the ongoing event that our responders are working to safely mitigate,” TPC spokesperson Sarah Cronin told 12 News. “You may have heard that the county has issued a 4-mile evacuation notice. We are still addressing the incident, keeping the safety of our responders at the forefront of everything we are doing. We are still doing air monitoring.”

The company said it was working with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to determine if the burning chemicals posed any threat to air quality. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said local officials would have “all resources needed to respond to this.”

Texas has been rocked by a series of chemical plant fires and explosions this year, and officials have long worried about the dangers of industry deregulation under President Donald Trump. In March, a fire at a plant in Deer Park burned for three days, forcing the closure of local schools as air quality plummeted. Another blast happened in the Houston area three weeks later. There was another fire at an ExxonMobil chemical plant in July.

There has been an “unacceptable trend of significant incidents” in the region, Toby Baker, the executive director of the TCEQ, told Reuters on Wednesday, saying he would move to review Texas’ safety compliance laws.

A spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office told The New York Times that it would take time to determine if Wednesday’s explosions were a “natural or man-made disaster.”